College History

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.

Mount Holyoke's early history is one of struggle and 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 steep 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.

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.

From its inception, 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 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 1890-1900. 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.

At the turn of the century, Mary Emma Woolley began her thirty-seven 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 twenty-five 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.

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 towards 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 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 continuing education further reflected Mount Holyoke's ability to meet the challenges and opportunities of the times.

In 1978, Elizabeth Topham Kennan `60, became the first alumna in this century to serve as president of Mount Holyoke College. The increased enrollment of international students beginning in the eighties spurred a rededication to the study of foreign languages and study abroad. A Third World requirement was initiated and the department of International Relations was formed. Chief among Kennan's accomplishments were 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.

Today, as one of the nation's preeminent liberal arts colleges for women, Mount Holyoke enrolls approximately 1,900 undergraduates from across the country and around the world. Approximately 17 percent of students are African American, Latina American, Asian American or Native American, and 13 percent are international students. 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 academic programs remain at the heart of Mount Holyoke. Recently introduced majors and interdisciplinary programs include critical social thought, environmental studies, and computer science; and the College is continually incorporating new technologies and pedagogical approaches to strengthen its academic program.

Service 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, sensitivity, and self-confidence to serve and lead. A wide range of programs dealing with such issues as literacy, tutoring, homelessness, 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, teaching, government, and the arts, Mount Holyoke alumnae continue to prove the civic value of a liberal arts education.

With the inauguration of Joanne V. Creighton, the College begins a new era of self-examination and evaluation as it seeks to clarify and articulate its mission and purposes. Dr. Creighton is working with the community to embrace the challenging questions of our time. What is the relevance of a small, selective, residential liberal arts college for women? How will private liberal arts colleges remain affordable? What should the curriculum of the twenty-first century look like? How will it reflect the demographic changes in students, faculty and the world at large? Under Dr. Creighton's leadership, the College looks forward to the next century with a renewed commitment to women, open and intense inquiry and dialogue, inclusiveness, and the high academic standards that form the foundation upon which Mount Holyoke was built and will continue to stand.

For more information on Mary Lyon, see the Mary Lyon Website.

Prepared by Sujeong Shin, Office of Communications, 1996