With the birth of Mary Lyon on February 28, 1797, higher education for women gained an impassioned champion whose revolutionary vision would help transform the world. Lyon firmly believed that women must be well educated to contribute significantly to society's greater good. This belief, fueled by her love of learning, inspired her to found Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.
Fighting for a Dream
Mount Holyoke's early history is one of triumph over tremendous odds. The country was in the grip of economic depression when Lyon set about gathering the means with which to establish her institution. A tireless fundraiser, she traveled endlessly by stagecoach to fill her green velvet bag with contributions. They ranged in value from six cents to a thousand dollars, sometimes consisting of scraps of fabric for students' quilts and feathers for their pillows. Raising funds was difficult. In a rare moment of discouragement, she wrote to a friend, "There are more than nine chances out of ten that the door of Providence will be closed against all future operations toward founding a permanent institution [for women]." Even some of her staunchest supporters criticized her for traveling on her fundraising campaigns unaccompanied.
Lyon faced profound ideological obstacles as well. There were those who would confine women to the kitchen and nursery. It would be nearly a century before women gained suffrage (1920). Prevailing thought held, moreover, that women were constitutionally unfit to withstand the mental and physical demands of higher education. Lyon proved otherwise. She pursued the traditionally male discipline of chemistry and excelled. Her struggle to obtain an education fired her determination to make higher learning available to all women, particularly those of limited means.
Lyon was not alone in her determination. Other pioneering New England educators, including Catharine Beecher, Zilpah Grant, the Reverend Joseph Emerson, and Edward Hitchcock did significant work in advancing the cause. Still, the establishment of an outstanding permanent institution of higher learning for women remained to be seen. Lyon had watched fine schools for women close for lack of endowment. She had seen many a school unable to survive the death of its founder. Driven by the idea of a permanent school for women, Lyon harnessed the accomplishments of other educators and applied sharp political acumen to achieve her task: "It is desirable," she wrote, "that the plans relating to the subject should not seem to originate with us [women], but with benevolent gentlemen. If the object should excite attention, there is danger that many good men will fear the effect on society of so much female influence, and what they will call female greatness." Her insight helped assure her success.
Opening the Doors
When its doors finally opened on November 8, 1837, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary embodied two major innovations in women's education. It instituted rigorous academic entrance requirements and a demanding curriculum conspicuously free of instruction of domestic pursuits. And it was endowed, thus ensuring its permanence and securing the principle of higher learning for future generations of women. With this remarkable achievement, Mary Lyon proved herself true to the words she would become renowned for: Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do.
As the first of the Seven Sisters—the female equivalent of the once predominantly male Ivy League—Mount Holyoke has led the way in women's education. A model upon which many other women's colleges were patterned, it quickly became synonymous with brilliant teaching and academic excellence, especially in the natural sciences. As the nation expanded, frontier schools and seminaries looked to Mount Holyoke for teachers and educational leaders, thus fulfilling Lyon's original objective of educating women to teach. Mount Holyoke's influence spread still further as alumnae taught in foreign missions in such far-flung places as China, Turkey, and South Africa.
Mount Holyoke has shown itself to be an institution in motion—able to lead boldly, yet ever receptive to the constantly shifting currents of the times. After Mary Lyon's death in 1849, the principles she had labored so long to establish—high academic standards and commitment to service—remained vigorous and alive. In 1861, as Lyon had planned, the three-year course of study was extended to four. In 1888, during the principalship of Elizabeth Blanchard '58, the institution obtained collegiate status and was named Mount Holyoke Seminary and College. In 1893, the seminary curriculum was phased out and the institution was formally named Mount Holyoke College. Lyon's forward-looking leadership had set a pattern for future leaders to follow.
Notable among them was Elizabeth Storrs Mead, who served as president from 1890 to 1900. When fire destroyed the original seminary building in 1896, Mead initiated an extensive building plan that included the construction of a physics and chemistry building, a gymnasium, and several residence halls based on the cottage system. Curricular and administrative changes accompanied the physical transformation of the campus. Mead phased out seminary requirements and introduced electives. She lessened teachers' nonteaching responsibilities and encouraged them to pursue advanced degrees in the best universities. For the first time, students were given a voice in College governance.
Developing a Global Outlook
At the turn of the century, Mary Emma Woolley began her 37-year presidency of the College. Like her predecessors, she focused on faculty development, building needs, curricular change, and the endowment, but her interests spread into the international arena. Building upon the College's missionary heritage, she advocated higher learning for women around the world. An early crusader for women's education and political rights, she was the only woman among the delegates to the 1932 Conference on Reduction and Limitation of Armaments in Geneva.
The appointment in 1937 of Roswell G. Ham, the College's first male president, met with considerable opposition, but the specter of World War II quickly overshadowed the College's internal turmoil. Mount Holyoke supported the war effort by sharing its campus with an Industrial War Training Program, the Navy, and women marines. Following the war, a period of growth and expansion ensued. Enrollment increased by 25 percent, the endowment grew from five to more than eight million dollars, and the value of the physical plant doubled.
Richard Glenn Gettell's presidency (1957–1968) was also greatly influenced by the turmoil that swept the country and college campuses in the mid-1960s. Grading policies, the curriculum, and required chapel all came under attack. This time of intense questioning resulted in the formation of a Russian department, the dropping of required chapel, and curricular change that gave students more flexibility in planning their studies. Gettell's tenure saw major developments in the building and renovation of College facilities, including the construction of the Ellen and Thomas Reese Psychology and Education Building, the Rooke Laboratory Theatre, the amphitheater, Groves Health Center, and four new dormitories.
Affirming the Mission
David B. Truman arrived at the College in 1969 at the height of the unrest over the Vietnam War and race relations. Compounding these challenges was the pressure to move toward coeducation, which continued to build as more and more men's colleges admitted women. On November 6, 1971, after reviewing an exhaustive study on coeducation, the board of trustees decided unanimously that Mount Holyoke should remain a women's college, and a group of faculty was charged with recommending curricular changes that would support the decision. The formation of a black studies department, January Term, the Career Exploration Project, and the Frances Perkins Program for nontraditional students further reflected Mount Holyoke's ability to meet the challenges and opportunities of the times.
Investing in Excellence
In 1978, Elizabeth Topham Kennan '60 became the first alumna in the twentieth century to serve as president of Mount Holyoke College. The increased enrollment of international students beginning in the 1980s spurred a rededication to the study of foreign languages and study abroad. A multicultural requirement was initiated and the International Relations Program was formed. Chief among Kennan's accomplishments was leading a capital campaign to raise $125 million for the sesquicentennial. Exceeding its goal, the campaign raised $139.4 million. Kennan also developed the Master Plan, an ambitious building and campus revitalization program designed to ensure that campus facilities meet the academic needs of its faculty and students. Under Kennan's leadership, the College's endowment grew from $52.5 million to $246.6 million in 1995.
Embracing the Future
Sonya Stephens was named the president-elect of Mount Holyoke College on April 23, 2018. She was appointed by unanimous vote by the Board of Trustees. She succeeds the College’s 18th president, Lynn Pasquerella ’80. Her appointment is effective July 1, 2018.
Stephens has been serving as acting president of the College since July 1, 2016. She was named to that position by the Board of Trustees, also by unanimous vote, for a period of three years.
Stephens has presided over numerous key campus initiatives, including the development and implementation of The Plan for Mount Holyoke 2021; the College’s comprehensive self-study and review for re-accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); and construction of the College’s $50 million Community Center. Her significant, authentic engagement with the issues of equity and inclusion resulted in her introduction in 2017 of the annual BOOM! (Building on Our Momentum) learning conference, and hiring the College’s first vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer.
Today, as one of the nation's preeminent liberal arts colleges for women, Mount Holyoke enrolls approximately 2,200 undergraduates from across the country and around the world. Approximately one in every three Mount Holyoke students is an international citizen or African American, Latina, Asian American, Native American, or multiracial. While increased diversity enriches the community, it has also raised issues about the meaning of community. The College is actively engaged in educating students, faculty, and staff to understand and appreciate personal and cultural differences and to be sensitive to the traditions and needs of others.
While Mount Holyoke has undergone many transformations, the founding traditions begun by Mary Lyon endure. The excellence of the faculty and curriculum remains at the heart of Mount Holyoke. The College offers 50 majors and interdisciplinary programs and is continually incorporating new technologies and pedagogical approaches to strengthen its academic program.
Purposeful engagement in the world also remains a distinctive Mount Holyoke tradition. "When the desire to do the greatest possible good becomes firm and unshaken, I know not what may not be attempted," Lyon wrote over a century and a half ago. Today, while fully supporting scholarship and research for their own sake, the College endeavors not to allow intellect to stray from conscience. Now, as in the past, Mount Holyoke empowers women with the knowledge, insight, and self-confidence to serve and to lead. A wide range of programs dealing with such issues as literacy, globalization, and the environment give Mount Holyoke students meaningful and rewarding ways to act upon their convictions. Through their achievements in virtually every field, including the sciences, mathematics, medicine, teaching, business, government, law, and the arts, Mount Holyoke alumnae continue to prove the civic value of a liberal arts education.