Mary Lyon

Mary Lyon was an educator and the founder of the first women’s college, which is now known as Mount Holyoke College.


Mary Lyon was born on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, Massachusetts. She attended school until she was 13, and got her first job as a teacher while still in her teens. Mary Lyon taught and managed schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire before establishing Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, the first college for women. Lyon died in 1849.

Early Life

Born on February 28, 1797, in Buckland, Massachusetts, Mary Mason Lyon founded one of the country's oldest women's colleges, which is now known as Mount Holyoke College. She was the sixth child born to Aaron and Jemima Lyon. Her father was a farmer and a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He died when Mary was only five years old.

Lyon attended a local school up until she was 13, as was common for the era. Her mother remarried around this time, moving in with her new husband. Lyon and her siblings were left to tend to the family's 100-acre farm. At the age of 17, she took on a new challenge: Lyon accepted a job offer to teach in a nearby town. Despite having no formal training, which wasn't uncommon for teachers in those days, she enjoyed her new position. Lyon realized, however, that to become a better educator, she needed to learn more herself. In 1817, she began her studies at the Sanderson Academy in Ashfield. There she developed an interest in the sciences, among other subjects.

Pioneering Educator

Mary Lyon taught at and managed other schools before establishing one of her own. For a time, she worked at the Ipswich Female Seminary. Lyon worked hard to create a place that would provide women with the opportunity to obtain a higher education. Despite the fact that the country was in a time of financial crisis, Lyon was able to raise enough funds for her new school.

In 1836, Lyon officially chartered the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. It took another year to complete construction of the school's first building. In September 1837, the seminary opened its doors to its first group of students, all 80 of them. But it wasn't long before that number grew.

Part of Lyon's mission with Mount Holyoke was to offer a more challenging curriculum than many other women's schools did at the time. She required that each student take math and science courses, and Lyon even took time away from her administrative responsibilities to teach chemistry. The students also had to help with the chores around the schools to keep the cost of tuition low. Lyon wanted to make her school affordable for young women from all economic backgrounds.

Death and Legacy

Many of Lyon's students went on to be educational or religious missionaries, carrying her educational philosophy and teachings across the globe. Lyon wrote the 1843 book A Missionary Offering. She inspired others to create similar schools for women, including Wellesley College and Smith College.

Mary Lyon died on March 5, 1849, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She is remembered as an educational pioneer, providing women with access to a better education than they ever had before. Her work is still being carried on by the students and faculty of her school, which now has more than 2,000 students enrolled. The school officially became Mount Holyoke College in 1895. Its distinguished alumnae include poet Emily Dickinson, former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

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