Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary on this date in 1837. The seminary later changed its name to Mount Holyoke College, and it was the first of the “Seven Sisters” — seven women’s liberal arts colleges in the northeastern United States.
Mount Holyoke wasn’t the first women’s college. Others had come and gone — usually because they didn’t have the benefit of a financial endowment that would keep them open past the retirement or death of their founders. Their tuition was usually more than women of modest means could afford. Mary Lyon had come from modest means herself: she was born on a farm in Buckland, Massachusetts, and took over the running of the household when she was 13 years old, after her widowed mother remarried and moved away. She started teaching when she was 17, and met many progressive and passionate educators.
In 1834, U.S. Representative Laban Wheaton asked Lyon to help establish the Wheaton Female Seminary. Lyon developed the curriculum and began thinking about establishing another women’s college, one that would accept students from a wider range of economic backgrounds. She had studied chemistry and knew that — contrary to popular belief — women were just as capable as men of withstanding the rigors of a college education. She wanted her new seminary to be on par with any of the 120 men’s colleges in the United States, with no classes in the stereotypically feminine “domestic arts.”
Lyon needed to raise money, so she set off on in a stagecoach, armed with her convictions and a green velvet bag in which to collect donations. It was a daunting task; the country was in the middle of an economic depression, and not everyone could afford a cash donation. Some people just contributed a few pennies, and others donated fabric and feathers for student bedding. Lyon often despaired that her vision would ever become a reality; she wrote to a friend: “There are more than nine chances out of ten that the door of Providence will be closed against all future operations toward founding a permanent institution [for women].” But she didn’t give up, and eventually she raised enough money to open her seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
The school opened its doors to its first class of 80 young women on this day in 1837. The seminary was housed in a single building, and Lyon had to turn away some 400 applicants the following year because she didn’t have the space for them. Tuition was 60 dollars a year, about one-third the cost of nearby Ipswich Female Seminary, where Lyon had once taught. Students were expected to walk a mile after breakfast, and take calisthenics classes. They were required to take at least seven classes in science and mathematics. They also pitched in to help cook and clean. Emily Dickinson, a student at Mount Holyoke in the 1840s, cleaned knives. The founders of Vassar College and Wellesley College emulated the Mount Holyoke model. The seminary received its collegiate charter in 1888 and changed its name to Mount Holyoke College in 1895. In 1971, the board of trustees voted to remain a college for women, a definition that now includes transgender and nonbinary students.
Lyon served as the principal of Mount Holyoke for 12 years and oversaw the school’s expansion. She died in 1849 and was buried on the Mount Holyoke campus, in front of Porter Hall and behind the Amphitheater.