American education » Mount Holyoke College

Published: August 9, 2011

Mount Holyoke College

The world’s first women’s college, founded in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1837 by MARY LYON. Although EMMA WILLARD and CATHERINE BEECHER had founded women’s academies whose curricula approached those of men’s colleges, Mount Holyoke was the first women’s institution with a curriculum identical to that of the finest men’s colleges of the day. In planning Mount Holyoke, Lyon visited both Willard and Beecher’s schools, but she also consulted with a former teacher, Dr. Edward Hitchcock, an eminent scientist and instructor at AMHERST COLLEGE. Although Lyon sought to duplicate the Amherst curriculum at Mount Holyoke, she found initially that few girls were academically prepared for college-level courses, and she designed the first year’s curriculum at Mount Holyoke to prepare students for college-level studies in succeeding years.

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 made the curriculum as advanced and as demanding as possible, 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 such outstanding women’s colleges as Mills College in California.

Mount Holyoke College
Mary Lyon Hall, the administration building of Mount Holyoke College, the world’s first college for women (Mount Holyoke College)

Lyon also limited enrollment at Mount Holyoke to more mature, academically motivated students, at least 16 years old. She also required students to take entrance exams and used exam scores to determine whether to assign students to first-year preparatory work or second-year college-level work. The cornerstone of the college was set in October 1836, and the doors opened at America’s first women’s college a year later. It was an immediate success. By mid-afternoon, 80 young women had arrived by stagecoach and carriage. 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. Unlike men’s colleges of the day, Mount Holyoke was, from the beginning, a boarding school. Determined to serve poor women as well as rich, Lyon kept tuition, room and board to $64 a year. Lyon herself paid the costs of academically qualified students who otherwise could not have afforded to attend.

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 . . . furnishing them with a little daily exercise of the best kind.”

In a time when women were refused all access to higher education, the opening of Mount Holyoke began a new era for women’s education in the United States. Mount Holyoke remains one of America’s premier colleges— “the oldest continuing institution of higher education for women in the United States.” Although the original building burned to the ground in 1896, Mount Holyoke’s initial 15- acre campus has grown to more than 800 acres. Located about 90 miles west of Boston, it remains an independent liberal arts college for women, with an enrollment of about 2,150.