- Historic Sites
The founders of the first women’s colleges weren’t necessarily crusaders or even educators; one savored a vision of himself as the second Great Emancipator, and another was motivated chiefly by hatred of her brother
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Ten years ago it was possible to mention the Seven Sisters almost anywhere in America and expect instant recognition. These prestigious eastern women’s colleges had a national, and often international, reputation; and alumnae were handed an image with their freshman registration forms that could be made to last a lifetime. Radcliffe was academically rigorous; Bryn Mawr, intense; Smith, athletic; Barnard, sophisticated; Wellesley, blonde and literary; Vassar, radical; and Mount Holyoke, refreshingly wholesome. Now, however, the images are blurring as, in one way or another, the Sisters adopt varying relationships with the men. Dropping all reference to gender, the Seven have quietly renamed themselves The Seven College Conference.
Elaine Kendall has recently completed Peculiar Institutions: The History of the Seven Sisters Colleges , from which we have adapted on the following pages her engaging story of how some of them—the first five of the Seven—came to be founded and who did the founding. Her book will be published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons later this year.
With the exception of the first founder, Mary Lyon of Mount Hoiyoke, who was a teacher, the pioneers in women’s higher education were an assorted and often improbable lot. The others—Matthew Vassar, Sophia Smith, Henry Durant of Wellesley, Joseph Taylor of Bryn Mawr, Annie Nathan of Barnard, and the small Cambridge group who launched what would become Radcliffe by arranging for certain Harvard professors to teach women after hours—were perhaps the most unlikely collection of people ever to create a set of closely related institutions.
Unfortunately the legend of Mary Lyon’s heroic efforts in the i83o’s to get Mount Holyoke underway, though inspiring, is somewhat short on glamour or mystery. One might expect the founder of the first women’s college in America to have been a more fiery personage, someone who would have chained herself to lampposts for women’s rights or lain down across the Springfield trolley tracks or even been touched by a faint hint of scandal.
Mary Lyon, however, was simply not such a person. She was modest, dedicated, devout, and personally beloved even by those who considered the higher education of women to be both misguided and perilous. She was even quite witty in a gentle and inoffensive Victorian way. Moreover, she was no mere philanthropist or benefactor but the entire creative force behind the college and its hardworking principal until her early death, in 1847. Her first biographer, great admirer, and the eventual president of Amherst, Edward Hitchcock, subtitled his life of Mary Lyon The Power of Christian Benevolence . He varnished his subject with so heavy a coating of sanctity that her real qualities have been somewhat obscured. Hitchcock meant well, but neither Miss Lyon nor Mount Holyoke has ever fully recovered from his treatment. Subsequent writers have gone to considerable trouble to de-emphasize her piety and bring her character into focus, but it’s been an uphill job. She was an original, vital, and extraordinary woman, and none of the other six founders resembled her in the least, though they freely borrowed a great many of her advanced ideas.