Mary Lyon: from farm girl to founder of Mount Holyoke college

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15 December, 2023

Mary Lyon: from farm girl to founder of Mount Holyoke college

Born on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, Massachusetts, Mary Mason Lyon founded one of the country's oldest women's colleges, which is now known as Mount Holyoke College. She was the sixth child born to Aaron and Jemima Lyon. Her father, Aaron, was a farmer, as well as a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He died when Mary was only five years old, leaving his wife alone to look after their seven children and to care for the farm.

Mary Lyon attended a local school up until she was 13, as was common for the era in which she lived. Her mother remarried around that time, moving away to live with her new husband. Jemima left Mary and her siblings to manage the family's 100-acre farm. Mary’s brother paid her weekly, and she saved that money hoping to continue with her education.

At the age of 17, she took on a new challenge. Mary accepted a teaching job in a nearby town for a weekly salary of 75 cents. As was common at that time, Mary had no formal training, but she enjoyed her new position. It didn’t take very long for Mary to realize that in order to become a better teacher, she needed additional training. So, in 1817, she enrolled at the Sanderson Academy in Ashfield. There she developed an interest in the sciences, among other subjects.

As a pioneering educator, Mary Lyon taught at and managed other schools before she established one of her own. For a while, she worked at the Ipswich Female Seminary, founded in 1818 by Emerson─an educator who believed that it was essential, in order to contribute significantly to society’s greater good, that women be well educated. Mary tried to make her school affordable for students of modest means.

Lyon worked hard to create a place that would provide women with the opportunity to obtain a higher education. Even though the country was in a time of financial crisis, Lyon was able to raise enough funds for her new school.

In 1836, Lyon officially chartered the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. It took another year to complete construction of the school's first building. In September 1837, the seminary opened its doors to its first student body. The student body was made up of 80 young women, but before very long, it became larger as that number grew.

Part of Mary Lyon's mission with Mount Holyoke was to offer an even more challenging curriculum than most other schools for women made available. She required that each student take a mathematics and a science course. Mary took time away from her demanding responsibilities as an administrator to teach chemistry.

Daily chores were assigned to the students. In that way tuition could be more affordable. Mary tried to make her school available to young women from all economic backgrounds, especially those of modest means.

In addition to becoming wives and mothers, Mount Holyoke students became both educational and religious missionaries, carrying the educational philosophy and teachings gained at Mount Holyoke across the globe. Mary inspired others to create similar schools for women. Among those are Wellesley College and Smith College.

Mary Lyon died on March 5, 1849, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Honored as an educational pioneer, Mary provided women access to a better education than ever had before been available. Today her work is still being carried on by the students and faculty of her school, which in the fall of 2022 had enrolled more than 2,000 students.

In 1865, the school officially became Mount Holyoke College. Among its distinguished alumnae are poet Emily Dickinson, former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. The latter received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for The Heidi Chronicles. And so the incredible legacy of Mary Lyon, who began life as a simple farm girl, continues more than a century after her death.

End Notes

Mary Lyon. - Accessed December 12, 2023

Hartley, James E. (Editor). 2008.

Mary Lyon: Documents and Writings: South Hadley, MA: Doorlight Publications.

Mary Lyon