Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was an early experiment in education for girls and young women that developed into a successful four-year college that has served as a model for many other women’s educational institutions.

Summary of Event

Born in 1797 to a Buckland, Massachusetts, farming family, Mary Lyon learned the skills of farm women, such as weaving, making cloth, and cooking. At the age of four, she began attending a school that was about a mile away from her home. She walked without complaint because school was her greatest delight. After her father died in 1802, Mary, along with her mother and seven brothers and sisters, ran the farm. After she was seven, however, her school moved to Ashfield, and she began a period of staying with relatives in order to continue attending school, repaying her relatives by helping with chores. She baked, spun, dyed, weaved, and embroidered and also helped care for the children. Eight years later, Mary’s mother decided to remarry and move to Ashfield. Mary stayed on the farm and kept house for her brother Aaron, who contributed a dollar per week for her education. []Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Women;education Education;women’s[women] []Massachusetts;Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Lyon, Mary [kw]Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Opens (Nov. 8, 1837) [kw]Holyoke Female Seminary Opens, Mount (Nov. 8, 1837) [kw]Seminary Opens, Mount Holyoke Female (Nov. 8, 1837) [kw]Opens, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (Nov. 8, 1837) []Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Women;education Education;women’s[women] []Massachusetts;Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Lyon, Mary [g]United States;Nov. 8, 1837: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Opens[2020] [c]Education;Nov. 8, 1837: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Opens[2020] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 8, 1837: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Opens[2020] [c]Women’s issues;Nov. 8, 1837: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Opens[2020] Grant, Zilpah Polly Hitchcock, Edward

In 1814, when Mary Lyon was seventeen, she was offered a summer teaching position in the nearby town of Shelburne Falls at a salary of seventy-five cents per week. This first teaching experience was a difficult one, mainly because Lyon did not know how to discipline students. During the winter months, however, she consulted with experienced teachers to learn their art, and in the summer of 1815, she taught once more at the Shelburne school. During the next few summers, Lyon taught either at Ashfield or at Buckland school, staying with the parents of students, as was the custom of the time.

Meanwhile, Lyon longed to further her own education. In 1817, when she was twenty, she heard of a new school opening in Ashfield that was called the Sanderson Academy. Using all her savings to pay her tuition, she began to study mathematics and astronomy there under Elijah Burritt. She succeeded admirably with her studies, learning the entire Latin grammar, for example, during only one weekend of study. When Lyon did not have funds for the second semester, Thomas White, the father of her new friend Amanda White, persuaded the school board to allow her to stay on free of charge and invited Lyon to live with his family.

Mt. Holyoke College’s Mary Lyon Hall.

(Library of Congress)

When Lyon finished at Sanderson Academy, she moved back to the family farm with her brother Aaron and his new wife, Armilla, who by that time had borne three children. When Aaron decided to sell the farm and move to western New York, near Jamestown, he invited Mary to move with them. However, Lyon declined, instead choosing to study at Byfield Female Seminary, where she formed a lifelong friendship with Zilpah Polly Grant Grant, Zilpah Polly , a young assistant principal (preceptress) of the school. At the same time, she also taught at Sanderson Academy.

During the summer of 1823, Lyon taught at a school in Conway, Massachusetts, where she boarded with a young minister, the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, Hitchcock, Edward who was also a geologist, and his wife, Orra. The three became fast friends. In 1824, Lyon opened a girls’ school in Buckland, which operated during the winter, and spent the summers with Zilpah Grant at the new Adams Female Academy in East Derry, New Hampshire. In 1828, Grant left Adams Academy over a disagreement with the trustees, who wanted to introduce more “feminine” arts, such as dance and music, into the curriculum. Grant Grant, Zilpah Polly then proceeded to open a school in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and invited Lyon to come with her. Although initially reluctant to leave her own school, Lyon eventually decided to become assistant principal and teacher at Grant’s school. When Grant became ill, Lyon found herself in charge of the school.

It had been Lyon’s lifelong dream to establish a permanent school for women, one endowed in such a way that it would not depend on the whims of temporary trustees. She and Grant had worked toward this goal at Ipswich, but the property was owned by men who did not want to make an endowment but instead wanted returns on their investments. During the summer of 1833, Lyon traveled in New York State, to Troy, Niagara Falls, and Stockton County, where her brother Aaron welcomed her. Thereafter, her life was dedicated to founding her new school. In 1834, she wrote, “My heart has so yearned over the adult female youth in the common walks of life, that it has sometimes seemed as if there was a fire, shut up in my bones.” She envisioned a school that was plain, with simple food and labor done by the families of teachers and students. The school would own its own property, its finances handled by trustees who expected no profit. Tuition would be low, allowing even poor women to attend.

Lyon raised the first thousand dollars for the project, going from house to house and town to town, appealing for contributions from old friends such as Thomas White and Edward Hitchcock. Hitchcock, Edward Eventually, the residents of ninety-one towns gave a total of twenty-seven thousand dollars. Engaging a group of male trustees, Lyon left them the choice of the school’s location, and they chose South Hadley, Massachusetts. Despite controversy over the school’s goals which some denounced as unchristian and unfeminine it opened with eighty students on November 8, 1837. A nearby mountain, Mount Holyoke, gave the school its name. As was customary at the time, the students were to live at the school, and they went to work cooking and furnishing their rooms.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary quickly prospered. Its enrollment rose, wings were added to the main building, and visiting professors arrived to lecture. Hitchcock Hitchcock, Edward lectured on human anatomy using a mannekin whose organs could be detached. Teaching methods were experimental for their time. Compositions were written; classes were conducted by topics and discussion, rather than by rote. Academic standards were high, and no one under the age of sixteen was admitted. Tuition was sixty-four dollars per year. One of the most famous students at Mount Holyoke was poet Emily Dickinson Dickinson, Emily , who wrote to a friend regarding the entrance examinations:

You cannot imagine how trying they are, because if we cannot go through them in a specified time, we are sent home. . . . I never would endure the suspense which I endured during those three days again for all the treasures of the world.

In February, 1849, after caring for a sick student, Lyon became ill, and on March 5, just after her fifty-second birthday, she died.


Mount Holyoke College is the oldest continuing institution of higher learning for women in the United States and was a pioneer in women’s education in the liberal arts and sciences. Its original course of study was three years, but Lyon planned for its development into a four-year program. The course of study was lengthened to four years in 1861, and finally in 1888 Mount Holyoke was chartered as both a seminary and a college. In 1893, the name was changed to Mount Holyoke College. One hundred years later, Mary Lyon was recognized as a member of the Women’s Hall of Fame Hall of Fame, Women’s . On February 28, 1987, a stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in her honor. Since her time, the college’s alumnae have traveled throughout the world carrying the message of women’s education. Schools and seminaries modeled after Mount Holyoke began to appear in the United States and throughout the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browne, Sheila E. “Daring to Dream: Women Scientists Then and Now.” Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly 76 (Winter, 1993). Brief examination of how Mount Holyoke began a tradition of women scientists that argues that women are more successful in science when they study at women’s colleges.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faragher, John Mack, and Florence Howe, eds. Women and Higher Education in American History: Essays from the Mount Holyoke College Sesquicentennial Symposia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Collection of essays on issues in women’s education that situates Lyon and her philosophy in the history of higher education for women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levin, Miriam R. Defining Women’s Scientific Enterprise: Mount Holyoke Faculty and the Rise of American Science. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2005. Study of the ways in which women science teachers at Mount Holyoke created a niche for themselves and helped advance the institution from the time Lyon founded the college in 1837.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFeely, William S. “Mary Lyon: The Life of Her Mind.” Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly 70 (Winter, 1987). Traces the life of Lyon from the viewpoint of her searching for her goal in life. He emphasizes her belief in what the mind can accomplish.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porterfield, Amanda. Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A study of Lyon and the Protestant missionary women she trained at Mount Holyoke. Porterfield views the college’s missionary work as representative of American missionary thought before the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Dorothy. A Fire in Her Bones: The Story of Mary Lyon. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1995. Classified as juvenile literature, this book presents an accurate and well-written portrayal of Lyon’s life.

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Categories: History