Lyon, Mary (1797–1849)

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Lyon, Mary (1797–1849)

American founder of Mt. Holyoke Seminary, an innovation in higher education for women because of its commitment to educating women from all economic circumstances. Born in Buckland, Massachusetts, onFebruary 28, 1797; died on March 5, 1849; buried on the campus of Mt. Holyoke College; fourth daughter and sixth child of Aaron Lyon (a Revolutionary War veteran) and Jemima (Shepard) Lyon; attended Sanderson Academy, Amherst Academy, and Byfield Female Seminary; never married; no children.

Born into a family who came to America in the 1630s; attended one-room schoolhouses; father died (1802); mother remarried and moved away; started teaching in summer schools (1814); attended academies and Emerson's Ladies Seminary interspersed with continued teaching primarily at Sanderson Academy; opened a girls' school in Buckland (1824); taught summers at Ipswich Female Seminary; attended lectures by Amos Eaton at Amherst College; circulated a plan for a female seminary (1834); raised money; obtained a charter for Mt. Holyoke Seminary (1836); opened Mt. Holyoke Seminary (November 1837).

Selected publications:

A Missionary Offering.

There is a revealing quote carved on Mary Lyon's tomb in the center of the campus of Mt. Holyoke College: "There is nothing in the universe that I fear, but that I shall not know all my duty or fail to do it." Descended from a long line of Puritans, Mary Lyon brought evangelical fervor to the task of creating an educational institution for women who were not wealthy, and she believed, with all her heart, that that was where her duty to God lay. Of the early American pioneers of women's higher education, who included Emma Willard and Catharine Beecher , Mary Lyon was the most imbued with intense religious convictions and her successful labors on behalf of women's education were virtually a religious crusade.

Mary Lyon's maternal ancestry consisted of ministers from the great Puritan migrations of the 17th century; her father was a Revolutionary War veteran. Born on February 28, 1797, Mary was the sixth of eight children of Aaron Lyon and Jemima Shepard Lyon , of Buckland, Massachusetts. Widowed in 1802, when Mary was not yet six, Jemima Lyon eked out an existence for the family until she remarried when Mary was 13. With three older daughters already married, Jemima took two younger daughters with her to her new home in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Mary remained behind to do the household chores at the Buckland Farm for her older brother until his marriage two years later. She saved the dollar a week her brother paid her and, by boarding with relatives and friends whom she assisted with domestic chores, continued her schooling at Ashfield and Buckland. These experiences undoubtedly contributed to her later sense that all women, no matter what their education or social station, should master domesticity for "independence."

At age 17, she began teaching in nearby communities, was paid 75 cents a week, and boarded and did domestic chores at pupils' homes. Thus, she was able to save enough money to attend Sanderson Academy in the town of Ashfield for several scattered terms. Her teachers, by this time, were remarking that Mary Lyon was "all intellect." It was at Sanderson that she became friends with Amanda White and her father Squire Thomas White, a leading citizen of Ashfield. Lyon boarded with the White family and both daughter and father became lifelong friends and supporters. Sanderson Academy offered an equal education to men and women and developed a spiritual rationale for the training of teachers. Pupils such as Mary Lyon were exhorted, in the words of historian Kathryn Kish Sklar , to "exercise spiritual authority and leadership in their schools, transforming their task of instilling 'virtue' in their pupils from a nominal to a vital responsibility, and [to view their calling] as female teachers as a sacred as well as a secular undertaking."

Take all the circumstances and weight [sic] them candidly—. You may see but one step where you can place your foot, but take that, and another will then be discovered.

—Mary Lyon

In the fall of 1818, Lyon studied at Amherst Academy (later Amherst College) and became friends with a young teacher named Orra White who would marry Edward Hitchcock, the future president of Amherst College. The couple remained staunch friends of Lyon's and were ardent supporters of her later seminary. After Mary Lyon's death, Edward Hitchcock would compile the first biography of her life. This pattern of friendship with women who were connected to powerful and well-educated men enabled Lyon to elicit support for her later educational efforts.

In 1821, after contributing to her expenses by weaving heavy blue-and-white coverlets, Mary Lyon, at the age of 24, left western Massachusetts in the carriage of Squire White and his daughter, Amanda. After a harrowing three-day journey, they arrived at Emerson's Ladies Seminary in Byfield, near Boston. Owned and operated by the Reverend Joseph Emerson, brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the school trained female teachers in much the same way "normal schools" would later in the 19th century.

In an 1822 Discourse on Female Education, Joseph Emerson called for improvements in female education commensurate with female responsibilities. He pointed out that women should engage in "the business of teaching [because] their instructions are at once more excellent and less expensive" and said that teachers could "do more to enlighten and reform the world and introduce the millennium than persons of any other profession except the ministers of Christ." Emerson concluded by pointing to two portents of positive change: fund-raising for good causes by women ("The numerous and noble institutions that so distinguish and bless the present day have been … urged forward by female hands, by female tongues, by female prayers") and the desire of women for improved education ("[M]any females are making vigorous efforts to enjoy and improve the means of their education"). Emerson's brilliant mind and magnetic zeal encouraged and inflamed Mary Lyon's desire for improved educational opportunities for her sex in order to enhance women's social usefulness. Lyon also learned to espouse Joseph Emerson's notion that "the station of woman is designed by Providence to be subordinate and dependent, to a degree far exceeding the difference in native talents."

While at Byfield Academy, Mary Lyon formed a deep friendship with Emerson's young assistant Zilpah Grant , whose religious convictions provided a system for monitoring the "conversion process" of students. This process had two stages: recognizing the obstacles within one's own heart to the "Savior" and transcending those obstacles through "trust in God." Lyon was especially grateful to Grant who spoke at religious meetings. As historian Sklar points out, "Peer solidarity developed in a context removed from normal family influences…. Religion was the basis of a 'community of feeling' among students." Grant later recalled, "We learned to consider each other as sisters and this feeling did not cease with our connection with the school." This was particularly true for Grant and Lyon.

In 1824, Zilpah Grant was asked to organize the newly chartered Adams Female Academy in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and she invited Lyon to join her. With Mary Lyon as teacher and Zilpah Grant as director, the new school flourished. A graded three-year course with examinations required for promotion, culminating in the awarding of a diploma, led to prestige and endowment for the institution. Grant's evangelical aspirations for the seminary were shattered, however, in 1827, when the male trustees, who disapproved of her heavy emphasis on Calvinistic religious instruction, announced the introduction into the curriculum of instrumental music and dancing along with more liberal religious instruction.

Shortly thereafter, Grant, along with Lyon and several pupils, left Adams Seminary to organize a seminary in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ipswich Female Seminary was successful and, in 1831, principal Grant and assistant-principal Lyon tried to secure a rent-free "boarding-home." However, lack of funds and Grant's illnesses—she had suffered from the suicide of her mother, a damaged Achilles' tendon, and typhoid fever—led her to depart for the South for a year and a half. Upon her return, in 1833, she learned that Lyon had decided upon an independent effort to found a seminary which would be permanent.

In 1834, a dozen gentlemen gathered in Mary Lyon's parlor to listen to her outline for a school, as she had become convinced that "the whole business must, in name, devolve on benevolent gentlemen." Aided by a committee of clerics and others, Lyon embarked on the task of soliciting funds for the new seminary.

Grant, Zilpah (1794–1874)

American educator. Born Zilpah Polly Grant on May 30, 1794, in Norfolk, Connecticut; died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1874; attended local schools; attended the Female Academy of Byfield, Massachusetts; married William B. Banister (a lawyer and politician), in September 1841 (died 1853).

Zilpah Grant was born in Norfolk, Connecticut, in 1794. Always of frail health, she grew up under intense pressure, having to aid her widowed mother in holding on to the family farm. Before her work with Mary Lyon , Grant taught at the Female Seminary in Byfield, Massachusetts, at a girls' school in Winsted, Connecticut, and was a preceptor at Adams Female Academy in East Derry, New Hampshire.

Other events in Lyon's life had also increased her belief that God intended her to found an institution for women. In 1825, she studied with Professor Thomas Eaton of Troy, New York, and probably met Emma Willard who founded the successful Troy Seminary in 1821. In 1833, just before issuing her circular calling for a female seminary, Lyon met with Willard. Through Joseph Emerson and Zilpah Grant, she also had

contact with the Beecher family and probably knew Catharine Beecher who had started a seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1824.

Lyon's plan for a new school was modeled upon Ipswich in its academic program but included a strategy whereby students would share in the household work, thus reducing the expenses. A committee was formed, a charter secured, and the women of Ipswich Female Academy contributed the first $1,000. Ipswich pupils made an additional offering of $200. According to Grant's biographer Sydney MacLean, "In 1835 Miss Lyon left Ipswich to devote herself to Mount Holyoke Seminary, which opened in South Hadley, Massachusetts, two years later. Four of Miss Grant's teachers and many of her pupils transferred to the new institution." In 1839, Grant left Ipswich "never again to teach." MacLean points out that Grant "expressed no bitterness … and after Mary Lyon's death she helped to gather material for [Lyon's] biography suppressing her conviction that many of Miss Lyon's educational ideas had originally been hers." Sklar holds that "Zilpah Grant's preference for a life-style that transcended her own social origins prevented her from joining Lyon," and, indeed, in 1841, Grant married a former state senator, William Bostwick Banister, and, as his third wife, presided over his large house in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

By January 1837, Mary Lyon and her male supporters had raised $27,000 from 1,800 individuals in 90 towns. When criticized for aggressive fund-raising unseemly for a woman, Lyon wrote, "My heart is sick, my soul is pained with this empty gentility…. I am doing a great work. I cannot come down." Later, when accused that "her persevering eloquence" manipulated the women who donated, she replied, "Get the money; the money will do good."

The times were unfavorable for fund-raising, which makes Mary Lyon's accomplishment all the more impressive. By 1835, the country was in a severe economic depression. Cotton prices dropped; the price of flour rose. The Seminoles in Florida were resisting federal forces, U.S. expansion in the southwest disturbed the Mexican frontier, and war with Britain threatened because of problems with Canada.

On October 3, 1836, the cornerstone was laid for Mt. Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, which opened on November 8, 1837, and quickly enrolled more than 80 students. By 1841, a new wing had been added to the original building, more than $50,000 had been raised and expended, and 200-plus students were enrolled.

One of the reasons for the instant success of the enterprise was its accessibility to young women of moderate means. For the first 16 years, tuition and boarding fees remained around $60 per year, made possibly by the domestic system designed by Lyon. Students were expected to work approximately an hour and a half a day, primarily cooking meals and cleaning up. There were no classes on Mondays (later Wednesdays) while the students cleaned the building and washed and mended clothes. Lyon further believed that her domestic system, in which she always fully participated, had other benefits: that it broke down social differences; developed a family feeling; and served as a means of physical training. An unanticipated consequence of the domestic system was that, early on, students expressed a sense of ownership in the school by forming a "society of inquiry" which aimed at self-improvement and discussed the seminary's needs.

Care was given that academics not be neglected and, at the end of the first year, two days of public examinations were held and three graduates received certificates of completion. Lyon designed the course of study and advised students in course placement. She also taught chemistry to the second-year class until her death in 1849, thereby setting Mt. Holyoke on a path that would culminate in, according to Carole Shmurak and Bonnie Handler , "a citadel for women in science." Mt. Holyoke became the college that produced more women who went on for doctorates in the physical sciences from 1910 to 1969, more women who obtained doctorates in chemistry from 1920 to 1980, and more women listed in the 1938 American Men of Science than any other undergraduate institution in the United States. Influenced by her work with Edward Hitchcock, teacher of science and future president of Amherst College, and her observations of Amos Eaton's laboratory method of teaching at Amherst and at Troy, New York, Lyon employed the same textbooks used by most men's colleges of the time and insisted that conducting experiments was more important for females than for males. She endeavored to reveal chemistry's value in "enlarging and elevating the mind."

The study of science was always inextricably linked to the study of religion for Lyon, and she always maintained, "If the Bible [would] only take the lead in our schools, I care not how closely the science follow." Here again, as in the finances, the domestic system, and the curriculum, Lyon took charge. She conducted the daily devotional exercises for the entire school and urged students who were professed Christians to encourage "conversion" of their fellow students as she had learned to do under the tutelage of Joseph Emerson and Zilpah Grant.

Lyon and the Mt. Holyoke students became actively involved in the work of foreign missions through fund-raising, promoting missionary work, and encouraging marriages to missionaries. In addition, Lyon continued to see teaching as a form of religious calling for women, and at least three-quarters of the students during the seminary's first 50 years became teachers for some period of time.

By 1849, a successful Mt. Holyoke Seminary had 224 pupils and 16 teachers. But Mary Lyon was not well. The long years of extraordinary effort had taken their toll, and, from 1841 until 1849, she suffered from a series of debilitating illnesses. Recovering from an attack of erysipelas contracted from a student, she became distraught when she heard the news of a nephew's suicide. On March 5, 1849, at age 53, Mary Lyon died. She was buried on the Mt. Holyoke campus, close to the school's original building (which would be destroyed by fire in 1896), in a grave enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

But Mary Lyon, unlike some of her predecessors in the building of seminaries, had provided, through her herculean efforts, sufficient endowment to ensure the continuity of the enterprise. In addition, her continued devotion to and cultivation of a circle of influential ministers and friends guaranteed their continued interest and support for the school. Led by President Hitchcock of Amherst, they compiled Lyon's first biography and took the administrative steps necessary as the school floundered in the first few years after Mary Lyon's death. In building an institution dedicated to God, science, and women of average means, Mary Lyon contributed a unique seminary for the higher education of women which served as a bridge to the successful women's colleges of the late 19th century.


Allmendinger, David F., Jr. "Mount Holyoke Students Encounter the Need for Life Planning, 1837–1850," in History of Education Quarterly. Vol. 19, 1979, pp. 27–46.

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

Edmonds, Anne Carey. A Memory Book: Mount Holyoke College, 1837–1987. South Hadley, MA: Mount Holyoke College, 1988.

Goodsell, Willystine. Pioneers of Women's Education in the United States. NY: AMS Press, 1931 (reprinted 1970).

Green, Elizabeth Alden. Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1979.

Hitchcock, Edward. The Power of Christian Benevolence Illustrated in the Life and Labors of Mary Lyon. Northampton, MA: Hopkins, Bridgman, 1851.

MacLean, Sydney B. "Zilpah Grant" and "Mary Lyon" in Notable American Women: Biographical Dictionary. Volume II, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971, pp. 73–75, 443–447.

Shmurak, Carole B., and Bonnie S. Handler. "'Castle of Science': Mount Holyoke College and the Preparation of Women in Chemistry, 1837–1941," in History of Education Quarterly. Vol. 32. Fall 1992, pp. 315–342.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. "The Founding of Mount Holyoke College," in Women and Power in American History: A Reader, Vol. 1 to 1880. Edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 199–215.

Stow, Sarah D. Locke. History of Mount Holyoke Seminary, South Hadley, Mass., During its First Half Century, 1837–1887. Springfield, MA: Springfield Printing, 1887.

suggested reading:

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. NY: Knopf, 1984.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.


Mary Lyon's extant letters, papers, and circulars are located in the archives at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Anne J. Russ , Professor of Sociology, Wells College, Aurora, New York

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Lyon, Mary (1797–1849)

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