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Family Governance

Rules and Regulations from the 1840s that were unrecorded. Courtesy MHC Archives.
Rules and Regulations from the 1840s that were recorded toward student conduct. Courtesy MHC Archives.

“We [teachers] are your equals but owing to our official station we want you to understand the proprieties of life.”—Mary Lyon on Family Government(1)

Emphasis of Order and Functionality: Mount Holyoke Seminary of 1838 reflected the style and functionality of factories and orderly conduct brought to asylums from factories of the time. With the orderly conduct and functionality of factories they stood out as a presence of productivity to the nation during the industrial revolution. However Mary Lyon, being a farmer’s daughter, did not have a connection to a factory but instead an association with an asylum via her sister. During this time period asylums were viewed as places to “restore the minds afflicted through the creation of perfect order”(2). Lovina Lyon Putnam, Miss Lyon’s sister, “broke down during the illness and death of her husband”(3). This experience proved to be a very important lesson for Mary Lyon.

To Enlighten Traditional Domesticity: The significance of order gleaned from the asylum influenced Mary Lyon when founding Mount Holyoke. The major objective of the school was to enlighten traditional domestic order of women, which was based on the natural time of the seasons and motherhood, and to make women capable of “self-propelled action”(4). Mary Lyon wanted to give women other opportunities with a higher education; demonstrating that the domestic sphere and its work was not the only option for women. When young women came to the seminary they were freed from their usual routine and eventually standardized to a bell, regulating the day. “Lyon emphasized the virtue of a clear schedule and punctuality as a way of meeting one’s own inner standard”(5). Furthermore, Mary Lyon insisted that “sober judgment, not whim, regulate the tasks of each day and the hours in which each occurred”(6).

Between Students and Faculty: The relationship between the students and the teachers, as well as the management of the school was to run in the order of family government. Miss Lyon later define this term to be “fixed, mild, gentle, undeviating, inflexible; so that there is nothing but advice on the part of the parent—on the part of the child most respectful deference”(7). The idea of family for the seminary was very important to the structure and daily operations of the seminary. In fact, the only rule for the first year of the seminary was “the law of love”(8). However, this did not seem to be enough to maintain student behavior and thus a notebook regulations grew and by the spring of the first year 106 items. This extensive set of “Maxims for Regulating General Conduct”(9) laid out the ethical rules that were to be applied upon the students in the spring and from thenceforth on. A self-reporting system went along with these regulations so even when teachers were not present students would turn themselves in. However, the student responses to these new rules were not the most positive one could hope for.

The Obligations of New Rules: By the 1840s the 106 maxims were fine tuned to rules structured around the schedule of the day, via the ringing of the bells, and making sure students adhered to the routine. Items that student failed to meet were recorded by a person of authority; at this time teachers of the seminary. Some items that were “recorded” were “Absence from Table, Tardiness in Retiring, Entering Rooms, Absence from Church, Delinquency in Composition, etc. There were also items that were “not recorded” such as delay in the Space Way, rooms in order, or loud speaking after the retiring bell has run(10). Intriguing aspects about the unrecorded items are the activities that restricted students like “Interruption in Half Hours, Closing Doors, Absence from Rooms in Study Hours, etc”(11).

The Connection of Enforcement and Living Spaces: These restrictions maintained student behavior and allowed the teachers to have a formal authority within the seminary. Even when such restrictions like “Spending time with others when it is not time for entering Rooms”(12) were broken, they were not recorded by teachers. However, students would have to suffer the consequences of a reprimand by the teacher, or worse, being sent to talk to the principle or assistant principles. With the fear of a reprimand or being viewed as a trouble maker in mind, most students did not deviate from the rules as far as documentation can provide. But the power given to the teachers to punish students for misdemeanors of loud talking in “the Space Way”(13) was enough to create a hierarchy within the school; giving teachers the upper hand in most battles of inappropriate behavior. However, most students respected the seminary’s “family governance”(14) as a way of life under the roof of Mary Lyon.


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This page was created by Jackie Finnegan '08 in History 283, Spring Semester 2006 -