(голосов: 0)
Published: July 13, 2011

Mary Lyon (1797–1849)

American educator, a truly gifted and revered teacher of young women, and the founder of the world’s first college for women, Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on November 8, 1837. Born in poverty on a western Massachusetts farm, Lyon’s early education was that of all farm girls: spinning wool, sewing, making clothes, cooking and similar homestead skills. At 17, she took a job teaching in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, for 75 cents a week and free room and board. Living an extremely frugal existence, she saved as much as she could, until she had enough money to attend a term at a nearby private academy. When she ran out of money, she quit, went back to work and saved up enough money to return for another term.

Described as “sturdy, rather uncouth” and poorly dressed, she more than compensated for her lack of manners and taste with her intellect. She mastered the rules of English grammar in four days and Latin grammar in three. She obtained a scholarship to the Byfield Female Seminary, one of only three female secondary schools with educational standards equal to those of boys’ academies. Byfield was headed by Reverend JOSEPH EMERSON, who, Lyon would write later, “treated ladies and gentlemen . . . in the same manner and talked to ladies as if they had brains.” Emerson also impressed on Lyon the need for better women’s education, and after graduating from Byfield in 1814, Lyon spent the next 20 years teaching young women. During that time she helped found two prestigious women’s academies, one of them at Ipswich, Massachusetts, with ZILPAH GRANT, a former classmate at Byfield.

Mary Lyon (1797–1849)

Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College (Mount Holyoke College)

Together, the two women built Ipswich into one of the Northeast’s most prestigious boarding schools, with a curriculum similar to those of boys’ schools. Both were gifted teachers, with Lyon constantly introducing such pedagogical innovations as colored maps, to help students distinguish states and countries more easily. Her innovation led to an oft-recited 19th-century couplet: “Geography was too abstruse; Till Mary Lyon taught its use.” Because of the demand to get into the school, Grant and Lyon imposed stiff admission requirements and raised the minimum age for admission to 14. Despite the restrictions, 1831 saw Ipswich attract 198 enrollees from almost every state, and the two women set out to raise enough money for an endowment to make their popular school a permanent institution. Unfortunately, they failed, because of what Lyon termed, bitterly, “good men’s fear of greatness in women.” Although it was one of the finest schools of its kind in America, Ipswich eventually closed because of its lack of endowment funds.

Her experience as a teacher and administrator at Ipswich convinced Lyon that no school could survive dependent solely on annual tuition and student fees. She decided to begin raising funds to underwrite her own school, one that would, for the first time, offer women a college education similar to those offered to men. She went house to house in Ipswich, talking to housewives and mothers who had been deprived of education during their own youth. She urged them to support the cause of education for their own daughters. In an amazing display of solidarity for that era, the women of Ipswich provided Mary Lyon with the first $1,000 to build Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Encouraged by her experience, Mary Lyon traveled across the state describing the goals of her new college. She “endured ridicule, fatigue, financial setbacks and staunch refusals” of support from some, but she also received enthusiastic offers to found her future seminary in cities as far west as Detroit. At the same time, influential male friends such as Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock (who supported the cause of women’s education and later wrote Lyon’s biography) joined the fundraising effort. With their help, Lyon eventually raised $27,000 over three years, from about 1,800 people in 91 towns. The value of the contributions ranged from two contributions of $1,000 each to three gifts of six cents each.

Lyon then traveled to a variety of girls’ schools to determine how to organize her new college. She found that graduates of the best academies would have no difficulty progressing into college work, but that girls from lesser schools might need as much as a year to catch up. As a result of her trip, Lyon decided to limit the enrollment at her future college to older, more mature and academically motivated students. She also planned to require applicants to take entrance examinations to determine how much each student knew in each of their college preparatory subjects. The exam scores would determine whether to assign each student to a specially designed, initial year of preparatory work or to second-year collegelevel work.

The cornerstone of the college was set in October 1836, and a year later Mary Lyon opened the door of America’s first women’s college. It was an immediate success. By mid-afternoon, 80 young women had arrived by stagecoach and carriage. At the door stood Mary Lyon, “her face all aglow,” greeting each student “as a mother would welcome her daughters.” One hundred sixteen students enrolled for the following spring term, and by the next autumn the college had to turn away 400 applicants for lack of room. A south wing was then added to the original red-brick, Georgian-style building.

Unlike men’s colleges, Lyon’s woman’s college was, from the beginning, a boarding school. By requiring students to live on campus, she felt the school and its students would remain independent of the influences of local families and townspeople. Determined to serve poor women as well as rich, Lyon kept tuition, room and board to $64 a year. As low as it was, the fee was too high for many students, and Lyon paid their costs herself if they were academically qualified. To keep costs low, the school had almost no paid staff other than its teachers. Each student—rich or poor—had to do two hours of work each day, sweeping corridors, washing and ironing laundry, washing dishes, baking and taking care of the lawns and gardens. Such work, wrote Lyon, in her Principles and Design of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, had three purposes: to teach the students equality and break down social and class differences; to teach them self-sufficiency and independence; and “to promote their health, by its furnishing them with a little daily exercise of the best kind.”

From its beginnings, Mount Holyoke’s tough academic requirements and demanding curriculum assured its students an education equal to that of the finest men’s colleges. At first, the school offered only a three-year curriculum to a junior, middle and senior class. Lyon and three resident teachers taught all classes when the school opened, but two more teachers were added by spring, and visiting lecturers from other colleges came to help. Mary Lyon’s old friend and supporter, Edward Hitchcock, came from nearby Amherst College to lecture on human anatomy. He illustrated his talks with a then-remarkable new manikin whose organs could be detached for easier explanations.

Lyon made the curriculum as advanced and as demanding as possible, basing the course catalog on that of nearby Amherst College. Her goal was to make Mount Holyoke, “like our [men’s] colleges, so valuable that the rich will be glad to avail themselves of its benefits and so economical that people in very moderate circumstances may be equally and as fully accommodated.” Her zeal for improving women’s education inspired more than 1,500 of her students to follow her example, by teaching other women and furthering the growth of higher education for women. Many went on to found outstanding women’s colleges such as Mills College in California.

In a time when women were refused all access to higher education, Mary Lyon opened a new era for women’s education in the United States, and, for her work, she was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. An astute administrator as well as teacher, Lyon worked as hard to build Mount Holyoke’s endowment as she did to build Mount Holyoke itself—to assure that “the buildings and grounds, the library and apparatus . . . (were) permanent contributions to the cause of female education.” Mount Holyoke remains one of America’s premier colleges—“the oldest continuing institution of higher education for women in the United States.” Lyon’s original 15 acres have grown to 800 acres, with about 1,850 students and more than 180 faculty. Mary Lyon’s first building burned to the ground in 1896, but she lies in a grave near its site, beneath a white marble monument built by her friends and former students.