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Single Spotlight: Mary Lyon

Sunday, February 28, 2010

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was hard for a woman to get a formal education. As early as 1647, the Massachusetts colony made education compulsory, with “common” (public) schools started in most towns in the colony. The school year of ten months was typically divided into two terms: the longer winter term, and the shorter summer term. Boys attended during the winter but not typically in summer when they were needed at home for farm work; the girls who were allowed to attend typically went during the summer, when the boys weren’t there to fill the seats. Most girls, however, were not encouraged or even allowed to attend school, as education was not considered necessary for the keeping of the home and the raising of the children. Most learned how to read, but that was about it.

It was into this world that Mary Lyon was born in 1797. One of seven children, Mary Lyon began attending school when she was four years old, walking with her older siblings about one mile into the nearby village school. Three years later, however, the school was moved to a further-away location. Mary was fortunate that she was allowed to continue her education by going to live with relatives located near the school, working basically as a part-time maid to pay for her room and board.

In 1803, Mary’s father died. When her mother remarried in 1810 and moved away from the family farm, Mary, age thirteen, had to leave school and help her older brother, Aaron, run the farm and care for their siblings. He paid his sister one silver dollar a week for this.

By this time, Mary, with nine years of schooling, had more education that most women. Four years after having to leave school, the school board in the neighboring town of Shelburn Falls offered Mary their school—by 1814, women were coming much more in demand as teachers as the male population who weren’t tied to the land as farmers were starting to migrate westward. Mary’s reputation as an excellent student brought her to the school board’s attention, and in the day and age when no formal training was needed to teach school, it was normal for someone who’d only had a rudimentary education herself to become a teacher. During a winter term, a male teacher typically made between $10 and $12 per month; Mary made 75¢ per week. She “boarded around,” staying with the parents of her students for a few days to a few weeks at a time.

The challenges of teaching stirred the banked fire in Mary to continue her own education; but as a woman of limited means, she couldn’t even dream of attending one of the several “female seminaries” that had started popping up throughout New England—and even if she could have afforded it, she probably wouldn’t have gone. The “female seminaries” of the time weren’t much more than “finishing schools” teaching needlework and drawing, not the subjects that men’s colleges taught, like geometry and calculus, Latin and Greek, science, philosophy, and history—the subjects Mary wanted to study.

Mary began to find ways to enhance what she could learn on her own by attending lectures—sometimes driving three days to get there—which she financed by cashing in the small inheritance her father had left her. The inheritance that should have served as her dowry when she married. Ever frugal, though, Mary saved as much of her teaching salary as she could and made coverlets and blankets which she traded for her room and board.

Mary’s reputation as a teacher grew and spread throughout Massachusetts and into New Hampshire. She became an outspoken advocate for and leading authority on women’s education, eventually becoming the assistant principal at Ipswich Female Seminary.

In 1834, at age thirty-seven, Mary took a leap of faith. She left the school at Ipswich to focus all of her time and energy on the dream she’d had her whole life: founding an academic college for women. Though the U.S. was in the midst of a severe economic depression, Mary persevered. For three years, she raised funds, wrote pamphlets and circulars to raise awareness and support, developed a curriculum, garnered the support of influential men, visited schools, and corresponded with educators from as far away as Detroit. Finally, she chose the school’s location, supervised the design and construction of the building, hired a faculty, equipped the building, and selected the students.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened on November 8, 1837. Mary was forty years old.

Exhausted by her efforts, Mary now faced ridicule. The majority of people in the country still believed that higher education was wasted on women. At that time, there were 120 academic colleges for men, but none for women. Mount Holyoke was the first.

Mary’s belief in her mission never failed. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary offered: an education for women equivalent to that which men received at college; affordable tuition—only $60 per year—so women of modest means could attend; rigorous standardized entrance examinations to keep the quality of education high and ensure the readiness of the students for the subjects and levels at which they would be studying; a required work-study program—students were expected to perform domestic work at the college to offset operating expenses and keep tuition low; and support from those of modest means, through the collection of donations of clothing, bedding, or other items as support, rather than cash, so they might do more than dream of one day sending their daughters to the school.

The success of Mount Holyoke opened the doors of higher education for women in the United States. Graduates of Mount Holyoke took the ideals and teaching methods and education they gained from Mary Lyon’s college and eventually spread it all over the world—from places like Minnesota and Alabama to Turkey, Hawaii, South Africa, and Japan. One alumna founded the first public school in Oklahoma; Wellesley College was founded by a trustee of Mount Holyoke, and its first president was a Mount Holyoke alumna; yet another alumna helped found Mills College in California.

Mary Lyon never married. She passed away in 1849, twelve years after seeing her dream of higher education for women come true.

More than 160 years after Mount Holyoke’s first class of eighty students enrolled, Mary Lyon’s legacy continues to live and breathe. Mount Holyoke College now enrolls more than two thousand students annually from the U.S. and forty-seven other countries, offering nearly a thousand classes and thirty-eight different majors. But on an even grander scale . . . in the twenty-first century, more women than men are enrolled in college. In 2007, more than 10.4 million women were enrolled in higher education institutions across the U.S.—57% of total enrollment. That’s just the enrollment from one year. Can you imagine the hundreds of millions of women, in the U.S. alone, who’ve been able to attend college because of this one woman? Quite some legacy, huh?

Because one woman persevered with the passion God gave her, the ministry and mission He put in her heart, women have access to the same kind of education men do and the world has been made a better place. And I for one am truly thankful.

“Sing, O barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the barren woman
than of she who has a husband,”
says the LORD.

“Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.

“For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
your spiritual descendants will dispossess nations
and settle in their desolate cities.

“Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
and remember no more the reproach of your singleness.

“For your Maker is your husband—
the LORD Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth.”

~Isaiah 54:1–5

  1. The Damsels permalink
    Sunday, February 28, 2010 12:44 pm

    I’ve done a ton of research on Mary Lyon (she’ll play a big roll in my second book of a new historical series I’m working on…well her college will :D) It’s been fun researching her – and even more so gathering information on Mount Holyoke which is only an hour from me 😀



    • Jennifer Elerick permalink
      Sunday, February 28, 2010 1:26 pm

      I am sorry to show my ignorance, but do you have any published fiction books that I can look for?


      • The Damsels permalink
        Wednesday, March 3, 2010 6:07 am

        Not published yet. Working on it…so hopefully one of these days!


  2. Jennifer Elerick permalink
    Sunday, February 28, 2010 1:14 pm

    I am also very thankful for her contribution. I would never be graduating in August to be Speech Therapist otherwise I am sure…


  3. Adrienne permalink
    Monday, March 1, 2010 7:37 am

    This was a great post. Very informative.


  4. Wednesday, March 3, 2010 8:10 am

    This is a fascinating article, Kaye. I had not heard of Mary Lyon before.


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