MHC's Hartley Reveals Literary Lyon

Posted: October 16, 2008

Working at Mount Holyoke and hearing the name of College founder Mary Lyon invoked on a regular basis naturally invites some curiosity about who she was and why she created the College. Yet, surprisingly, there has been little written about Mary Lyon, especially in recent years.

Economics professor James Hartley's belief that Lyon deserves more attention prompted him to address that situation.

This November 9, Founder's Day, Hartley's new collection of the founder's writings, Mary Lyon: Documents and Writings, will be made available to the Mount Holyoke campus. Published by Doorlight Publications, the publishing company of visiting religion professor and local pastor Dan Brown, the tome will be available for national distribution in December.

"This collected volume is meant to make Mary Lyon more accessible to the person who has some interest in knowing more about her and in learning about an important moment in the history of education and in the history of women," Hartley noted.

The book has met with approval from Lyon's current counterpart at the College of today.

"I think this is an invaluable compendium of primary documents having to do with the early history of Mount Holyoke and the memorable writings of its extraordinary founder, Mary Lyon," said College president Joanne Creighton.

In looking at Lyon's writings, housed in the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections, Hartley discovered some noteworthy things: Lyon wrote several published explanations of the importance of founding a college for women, published a book, and was frequently quoted in her time.

The Book's Four Parts
The four parts of Hartley's collection are designed to reveal very different parts of the character of Mary Lyon. In the section containing the documents related to founding Mount Holyoke, readers will see the part of her that is most prominent, including her vision for the school, which was grounded in a real sense of the importance of the role of women in the world and the problems arising from the historical neglect of educating women.

However, in the second section, containing the one book Mary Lyon published in her life, A Missionary Offering, readers will see that her vision of founding a school to further female education was a part of a much larger vision for changing the world. With such lofty ideals, it would be easy to imagine Mary Lyon was an idealist, focused on the big picture and ignoring the individuals she encounters, Hartley noted.

But, the third section, collecting the detached sayings of Mary Lyon, reveals that she was in fact very devoted to her students and fellow teachers, and that those with whom she interacted were so intensely devoted to her that they preserved literally hundreds of short admonitions and encouragements. And in the final section of the book, containing the letters Mary Lyon wrote, readers will experience her personal side: a woman who struggled her whole life with trying to become more of the person she thought she should be.

According to Hartley, this collection fills a gap. Lyon was, after all, a very important person in history, wrote several important documents outlining a vision for women's education, published a book of which very few people have heard, and said so many interesting things in her life that in the nineteenth century someone could create a day book with a quotation from Mary Lyon for every day of the year.

"The book presents a portrait of a woman who did much to advance the cause of women, but who does not fit our modern stereotypes of what such a woman should be like," Hartley asserted. "She exemplifies the possibility of a very different kind of feminism than the one which has prevailed since the 1970s; she exemplifies a female voice which has been silenced of late."

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