Mary Lyon

Mary Lyon (1797-1849) was the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and a pioneer in women's education.

In the midst of the panic of 1837, an economic depression which left many Americans jobless, homeless, and helpless, Mary Lyon opened a new school to educate young women. Though the institution, known as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, was not filled to capacity, she would not be discouraged. She was determined to offer women the kind of education available only—until then—in men's colleges.

A descendent of hardy New England pioneers, Lyon saw examples of courage on both sides of her family. After completing his studies at Cambridge University, her maternal ancestor, the Reverend Henry Smith, journeyed across the Atlantic to become a minister in Connecticut. Lyon's great-grandfather, Chileab Smith, staged a successful battle to avoid paying taxes for the support of the Anglican Church in Massachusetts; a devout Baptist, he took his case all the way to London. Chileab lived to see the birth of his great-granddaughter Mary Lyon on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, Massachusetts. As the sixth child of Jemima Shepard Lyon and Aaron Lyon, a Revolutionary War veteran and farmer, she enjoyed a happy childhood. The bright, inquisitive blue-eyed girl was described by an early biographer as:

possessed of an energy that was volcanic and of a sweet teachableness that won hearts. Through glad eyes she looked at the world and found it good, and the people in it…. Her laugh lay very near her lips….

Lyon's delightful sense of humor became troublesome, however, when she began teaching, at age 17. In an age when children's conduct was considered more important than their academic achievements, Lyon's tendency to laugh along with her pupils, combined with the fact that she was a less-than-perfect disciplinarian, was looked on as an impediment. Realizing that besides improving her style of classroom management she needed to acquire more education, at age 20 Lyon began studying in earnest at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, Massachusetts. "In that quiet retreat among the hills," she recalled later, "the intellect was stirred, the taste refined, and intensity given to the desire for knowledge. To mind and heart that institution was what the mountain airs are to the physical powers."

At Sanderson, Lyon studied mathematics, logic, speech, grammar, and geography. When she wasn't drawing maps, or acting in school plays, she was learning etiquette in the home of attorney Thomas White where she boarded. White's daughter Amanda became Lyon's lifelong friend, and in 1821 they went off to the Byfield Massachusetts Female Seminary together. By this time, having alternated between teaching and attending school at both Sanderson and Amherst Academy, Lyon was ready to devote herself to full-time study.

The experience at Byfield was intellectually rewarding. She forged close ties with Zilpah Grant, a faculty member who would later invite Lyon to become a teacher at the Ipswich Female Seminary where Grant would serve as principal. Lyon also underwent a religious conversion and joined the Congregational Church; religion, together with learning and family, thereafter played an important role in her life. She was exposed to the Reverend Joseph Emerson's advanced views on education for women. As both head of the school and a gifted teacher, Emerson was very influential, telling his students: "It is thinking, close thinking that makes the scholar." In class, he posed many questions, encouraging students to find the relationships between the various subjects they discussed. He also encouraged the diverse student body, which included a minister's widow in her 30s, to converse among themselves and learn from one another. The use of discussion as a teaching tool appealed to Lyon, and in 1824, when she established her own school, the Buckland Female Seminary, she had her students discuss articles from contemporary magazines. She became a popular and gifted teacher.

In 1833, Lyon embarked upon what was then considered a long journey, traveling to Philadelphia, Detroit, and western New York, where she was reunited with a brother she had not seen in many years. During her travels, Lyon stopped at various schools, including Emma Willard's famous Troy Female Seminary. When she returned to Massachusetts, she was determined to open a new school.

Now 36, Lyon possessed an impressive resume. Though her Buckland Female Seminary had closed after her departure for Zilpah Grant's Ipswich Academy, she continued her education by studying part-time at Amherst College and at the school known later as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Both her education and teaching career were interrupted by typhoid fever in 1828 but, once recovered, she devoted her energy to helping Zilpah Grant raise funds for the Ipswich Academy and for a seminary they hoped to create for the training of teachers. These efforts were unsuccessful; the seminary was never established, and Ipswich Academy was ultimately forced to close in 1839. With the exception of a brief assignment as acting principal in Grant's absence, Lyon had severed her ties with Ipswich in 1834 and was then hired to finalize plans for the institution known today as Wheaton College.

In 1836, the year after Wheaton opened, Lyon's own Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was chartered. Envisioned as a nonprofit Christian institution charging tuition and fees low enough for "the daughters of the common people" to obtain a liberal education, Mount Holyoke was endorsed by New England ministers, but the seed money for the new school was furnished by women. In keeping with the concept of "republican motherhood," well-educated women were deemed better able to raise the next generation of citizens, and Lyon hoped to see the influence of such women spread beyond the household. But first, a considerable amount of money would be required for her new school. To raise the initial $1,000, Lyon made personal visits to the homes of Ipswich women. Her enthusiasm and a rapid-fire explanation of her new educational venture caused donors to loosen their purse strings.

Besides raising money, Lyon oversaw the construction of the school's first building. The sizable contribution made by the community of South Hadley, Massachusetts, convinced the institution's trustees to choose that city for the site. But the discovery of quicksand at the location and the collapse of a brick wall slowed construction of the four-story Georgian style building. Finally, in the fall of 1837, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which derived its name from a geographic feature of the area, was completed. Contemplating the official opening of her experiment in women's education, Lyon noted in September 1837:

When I look through to November eighth it seems like looking down a precipice of many hundred feet, which I must descend. I can only avoid looking at the bottom, and fix my eye on the nearest stone, till I have safely reached it.

The excitement of opening day was tempered by the panic of 1837. Initially only 80 students enrolled, but a few months later there were over 100 girls, age 17 and above, in attendance. To keep costs low and create a family atmosphere, students, along with the founder, performed the domestic work. According to Lyon's friend, Edward Hitchcock, president of Amherst College:

During that first cold winter, Miss Lyon's powers of body and mind were in constant service from sixteen to eighteen hours out of the twenty-four…. From basement to attic she was in constant request. The celebrity of her movements was almost equal to the gift of multipresence, and yet she could hardly answer the calls for her aid and counsel.

While her dedication set the tone for life at Mount Holyoke, both outside and inside the classroom, it was in the academic area that she made her most important contribution. Striving to give students an intellectual experience comparable to that of men's colleges, Lyon included natural science, mathematics, philosophy, and economics in a constantly evolving curriculum. When the school first opened, she taught chemistry and logic herself. In time, visiting professors were added to the faculty and students were encouraged to stretch themselves intellectually, culturally, and physically.

At the same time, they were urged to cooperate with one another. Out of this came something known as the "Holyoke spirit," consisting of "alertness, democracy, sincerity and an unobtrusive helpfulness." This spirit made itself felt beyond South Hadley as Mount Holyoke graduates—responding to Lyon's advice: "Do what nobody else wants to do, go where nobody else wants to go"—went out to become teachers in far-flung places.

Others became missionaries, a calling Lyon praised in her book, A Missionary Offering, published in 1843. Two of her favorite nieces went off to the Far East as missionaries; their departure from South Hadley saddened Lyon, who had also lost her mother in 1840 and a nephew to suicide in 1849. At the time of her nephew's death, Lyon herself was ill with erysipelas, an infectious skin disease resulting in fever, chills and inflammation. Within a few months, she died.

Lyon's passing on March 5, 1849, saw the termination of a brilliant career and the end of the first phase of Mount Holyoke's development. But, in accordance with her original plan, the school continued to prosper, for unlike earlier institutions with which she had been associated, Mount Holyoke was not dependent upon any one individual. It was a nonprofit corporation with a board of trustees who could ensure a smooth transition from one administration to the next. This was exactly what Mary Lyon had envisioned when she wrote:

Uncommon talents are very convenient, but they are so rare an occurrence that any establishment, so organized that it be sustained and prosper only by such talents, would ever be in danger of falling by its own weight, and of being crushed by its own ruins.

Yet, Lyon was a person of uncommon talents. An extraordinarily effective teacher, she was warm, encouraging, and readily accessible to her students and the many visitors to Mount Holyoke; she was also a first-rate administrator who created the illusion that the operation of the seminary was effortless. In reality, careful planning and strenuous efforts characterized her undertakings, setting a supreme example for those who followed her at Mount Holyoke and the numerous other schools that derived inspiration from her achievements.


Further Reading on Mary Lyon

Gilchrist, Beth Bradford. The Life of Mary Lyon. Houghton Mifflin, 1910.

Green, Elizabeth Ann. Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke Opening the Gates. University Press of New England, 1979.

Hitchcock, Edward. The Power of Christian Benevolence Illustrated in the Life and Labors of Mary Lyon. The American Tract Society, 1858.

Lansing, Marion, ed. Mary Lyon Through Her Letters. Bruce Humphries, 1937.

Stow, Sarah. History of Mount Holyoke Seminary. Mount Holyoke Seminary, 1887.

Boynick, David K. Women Who Led the Way: Eight Pioneers for Equal Rights. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1959

Cole, Arthur C. A Hundred Years of Mount Holyoke College: The Evolution of Educational Ideal. Yale University Press, 1940.

Fenner, Mildred S. and Eleanor Fishburn. Pioneer American Educators. Kennikat, 1968.

Goodsell, Willystine. Pioneers of Women's Education in the United States. AMS Press, 1970.