- 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
Mary Lyon’s own education was acquired by the haphazard means available to a New England girl in the years just after the American Revolution. The district primary school serving her corner of Massachusetts seems to have been more liberal than some and actually permitted little girls inside the building. After exhausting the limited possibilities there Mary boarded with families in larger towns, helping with the housework in return for her keep and a chance to continue her studies. By the time she was twenty, she was earning seventy-five cents a week as a teacher, saving as much as she could and hoping to attend one of the few recently opened female seminaries. These were tiny, tentative, and very experimental institutions run in most cases by clergymen and their wives. The reverend gentleman took care of the spirit, and his lady looked after everything else. Mary Lyon attended two or three such schools before she found herself at the Reverend Joseph Emerson’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Emerson had begun this school after working out a plan for the education of his own fiancée. He wanted a wife who would be neither a “slave” nor a “toy”; and having succeeded nicely with one young woman, he enlarged his sphere of operations and took in a few dozen others. “Be not frightened of the sound of philosophy!” he wrote. “Metaphysics! Speculation! Human Reason! Logic! Theory! System! Disputation! They can never harm you so long as you keep clear of error and sin.” This enlightened man died after his novel school had been open for only a few years, and there was no way of carrying on without him. Saddened, impressed, and thoroughly convinced that the education of women would always be a short-lived and sporadic phenomenon unless their schools were financially endowed, Mary Lyon began her long crusade to establish a permanent institution—one that would outlast its founders. She had apparently learned “Politics!” from the Reverend Mr. Emerson as well as “Metaphysics! Theory! and System!” because she decided at once that the venture should avoid any taint of feminism. “It is desirable,” Mary Lyon said, that the plans relating to the subjecl should not seem to originate with us, but with benevolent gentlemen . If the object should excite attention, there is danger that many good men will fear the effect on society of so much female influence and what they will call female greatness.
Though Mount Holyoke was to be of a very different order from those female seminaries already in existence, Mary Lyon deliberately avoided calling her project a college. That word would have terrified and alienated the “benevolent gentlemen” she so desperately needed. “Seminary,” with its familiar connotations of spiritual uplift and ladylike accomplishment, was Miss Lyon’s concession to her era, and it gave her a twenty-five-year head start.
Women’s rights was a most sensitive subject in the i83o’s, and there was a great deal of free-floating anxiety about what would happen if ever the future wives and mothers of America were to taste the heady pleasures of real learning. A few ephemeral academies tucked inconspicuously away in the Berkshire Hills didn’t pose much of a threat, but a large, centrally located, permanent endowed institution was something else again. There were fears that it would draw the daughters of New England like a giant magnet, pulling them away from hearth and home, undermining the very foundation of society—which appears to be precisely what Mary Lyon had in mind. “My heart has so yearned,” she wrote, “over the adult female youth in the common walks of life, that it has sometimes seemed as if there were a fire shut up in my bones.”
But Miss Lyon, camouflaged in prim bonnet and ruffled fichu, judiciously kept the fire damped in public, and little by pathetically little she assembled the necessary funds. There were few single large gifts but simply a slow accretion of tiny contributions, the smallest of which was six cents and the largest rarely more than a few hundred dollars. Miss Lyon travelled up and down the countryside talking sweetly and reasonably to sewing circles, missionary societies, and town meetings, graciously accepting whatever she was given. One ladies’ group promised her feathers for future pillows; another donated scraps for quilts. She thanked them and persisted. In 1834 the Massachusetts General Association of Congregational Churches voted a rather belated endorsement of “Christian education among women.” A state charter was immediately applied for and granted. The campaign, now sanctioned by both church and state, was intensified. On October 3, 1836, as Mount Hoiyoke’s cornerstone was finally laid, Mary Lyon sounded considerably less restrained than usual: “The stones and brick and mortar speak a language which vibrates through my very soul. Surely the Lord hath remembered our low estate.”
Additional funds, however, did not exactly pour into the seminary coffers, and Miss Lyon’s fund-raising tours became longer and more arduous. She was criticized for travelling by stage-coach and train without an escort, and the green velvet bag with which she took up her collections became an overfamiliar and not always welcome sight. The perfect Victorian lady began to lose patience and occasionally showed it. “My heart is sick; my soul pained with this empty gentility, this genteel nothingness,” she once said, with rare frankness.