Mount Holyoke Female Seminary: A Higher Education Opportunity for Young Women

November 8, 1837

Today marks a very important day for those women who wish to seek the pursuit of knowledge and have the means to do so. In South Hadley, Massachusetts, an institution called the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary is opening its doors for the first time to young women who are searching to receive a higher education (1). It is not just the first boarding school, but also the first place where young ladies can go for more of a collegiate-level learning in Massachusetts. This is a very exciting leap in the world of education and the newly-formed feminist groups, especially since there are very few other places in the country that offer this kind of opportunity.

A pen portrait of Mary Lyon by Sarah Cushing Boynton

A pen portrait of Mary Lyon by Sarah Cushing Boynton

The mastermind behind this new institution is Miss Mary Lyon. For her whole life, she has been passionate not only about the opportunity of girls to receive higher education, but also to make it affordable for people of any means. Lyon, born in Buckland, MA in 1797, was always one to pursue knowledge. “I was lucky enough to go to school starting when I was four years old all the way to age 13,” she said in our interview last week, “even though my father passed away during that time, I was still able to keep learning,” (2). Unfortunately, when she was 13, she had to stay home and work at the farm because of a lack of money. But, as Lyon told me, her “thirst for knowledge was never quenched.” At 17 years of age, in order to make money further her education, she started work as a teacher in some private seminaries that were beginning to appear in New England. Not only were they expensive to attend, but they also had curriculums that weren’t very rigorous.  “One of the main disagreements I had with these schools was how different they were from male schools,” she commented, “the young gentlemen at private institutions would be learning Latin and science, while the young ladies of the exact same age are learning how to sew. How is that logical?” (ibid.).

So, Lyon decided to create a better option for young ladies who wished to be educated. After years of hard work and furious fundraising, Mount Holyoke is finally becoming a reality. The school will be split into 3 classes: the Junior Class, the Middle Class, and the Senior Class. “Though the studies of each class are only designed for one year, pupils will move between classes based solely on their progress, not according to how long they have spent here,” Lyon explained (3). The Junior class studies subjects such as Grammar, Geography, Botany, and Rhetoric; The Middle class studies Algebra, Philosophy, and Natural History; and the Senior class studies more advanced topics such as Chemistry, Astronomy, Christianity, Theology, and so forth (ibid.). It is important to note that none of these classes include domestic training of any sort, the closest being Botany. Lyon is very adamant about the leaving that sort of education to be learned in the household. “Home is the proper place for young ladies to be taught on this subject, and the mother is the appropriate teacher,” she stated (ibid.). Along with her unique, rigorous coursework, Lyon is keeping the tuition cost low by having the students at Mount Holyoke contribute towards helping with the housework to eliminate the cost of hiring domestics. When asked why it is important to have it be a boarding school, for surely a day school where one stays at home is much more affordable, Lyon merely responded, “a regimented day in a controlled environment is the answer to successfully educating female pupils,” (5). When taking all of this into account, one can see how Miss Mary Lyon is setting a new bar for the world of higher education in the United States at Mount Holyoke.

Though Lyon’s emphasis on affordability for education is something that is very much needed in this current economy, it does not help everyone who wishes to receive an education. A year of education at Mount Holyoke costs $60 (3), while a yearly farm wage in 1830, for example, averaged between $72-$144, depending on where you lived (4). Though an education for a young woman is important, I doubt many working families would spend up to 83% of their yearly income on schooling. Especially since, earlier this year, the economic downturn we experienced that is now being called “the panic of 1837,” (ibid.). More and more workers are either getting laid off or a significant reduction to their wages every day. The cost of an education at Mount Holyoke is cheap, in comparison to other places of higher education. But, when comparing it to the cost of living for anyone below the Upper-Middle Class, sending a young lady to Mount Holyoke is simply unobtainable.

Though not 100% accessible to all members of this country, this institution is still an incredible step towards creating a more educated country, and I hope that any young lady who feels that Mount Holyoke sounds intriguing and wants to know more, and feels that they have the means to do so, contacts Miss Mary Lyon in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Thank you, my dear readers, and I hope to see you again soon. Have a good day, may God bless you all.

Benjamin Smythe

Works Cited:

  1. “Fast Facts.” Mount Holyoke College. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <https://www.mtholyoke.edu/about/facts&gt;.

  2. “Mary Lyon.” Mount Holyoke College. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <https://www.mtholyoke.edu/175/gallery/mary-lyon&gt;.

  3. “The First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Members of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.” Five Colleges. 1837. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://clio.fivecolleges.edu/mhc/catalogs/1837/&gt;.

  4. Lebergott, Stanley. Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960. The National Bureau of Economic Research. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2486.pdf&gt;.

  5. Crispen, Jennifer L. “Seven Sisters and a Country Cousin.” Sweet Briar College. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://www.dean.sbc.edu/crispen.html >.

  6. featured image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Mount_Holyoke_in_1837.gif
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