There are two women whose memory the girls in this country should
especially revere,--Mary Lyon and Catharine Beecher. When it was
unfashionable for women to know more than to read, write, and cipher
(the "three R's," as reading, writing, and arithmetic were called),
these two had the courage to ask that women have an education equal to
men, a thing which was laughed at as impracticable and impossible. To
these two pioneers we are greatly indebted for the grand educational
advantages for women to-day in America.
Amid the mountains of Western Massachusetts, at Buckland, Feb. 28,
1797, the fifth of seven children, Mary Lyon came into the world, in
obscurity. The little farm-house was but one story high, in the midst
of rocks and sturdy trees. The father, Aaron Lyon, was a godly man,
beloved by all his neighbors,--"the peacemaker," he was called,--who
died at forty-five, leaving his little family well-nigh helpless--no,
not helpless, because the mother was of the same material of which
Eliza Garfields are made.
Such women are above circumstances. She saw to it that the farm
yielded its best. She worked early and late, always cheerful, always
observing the Sabbath most devotedly, always keeping the children
clean and tidy. In her little garden the May pinks were the sweetest
and the peonies the reddest of any in the neighborhood. One person
begged to set a plant in the corner of her garden, sure that if Mrs.
Lyon tended it, it could never die. "How is it," said the hard-working
wife of a farmer, "that the widow can do more for me than any one
else?" She had her trials, but she saw no use in telling them
to others, so with a brave heart she took up her daily tasks and
Little Mary was an energetic, frank, warm-hearted child, full of
desire to help others. Her mind was eager in grasping new things, and
curious in its investigations. Once, when her mother had given her
some work to do, she climbed upon a chair to look at the hour-glass,
and said, as she studied it, "I know I have found a way to _make more
At the village school she showed a remarkable memory and the power of
committing lessons easily. She was especially good in mathematics and
grammar. In four days she learned all of Alexander's Grammar, which
scholars were accustomed to commit, and recited it accurately to the
When Mary was thirteen, the mother married a second time, and soon
after removed to Ohio. The girl remained at the old homestead, keeping
house for the only brother, and so well did she do the work, that he
gave her a dollar a week for her services. This she used in buying
books and clothes for school. Besides, she found opportunities to spin
and weave for some of the neighbors, and thus added a little more to
After five years, the brother married and sought a home in New York
State. Mary, thus thrown upon herself, began to teach school for
seventy-five cents a week and her board. This amount would not buy
many silks or embroideries, but Mary did not care much for these. "She
is all intellect," said a friend who knew her well; "she does not know
that she has a body to care for."
She had now saved enough money to enable her to spend one term at the
Sanderson Academy at Ashfield. What an important event in life that
seemed to the struggling country girl! The scholars watched her
bright, intellectual face, and when she began to recite, laid aside
their books to hear her. The teacher said, "I should like to see what
she would make if she could be sent to college." When the term ended,
her little savings were all spent, and now she must teach again. If
she only could go forward with her classmates! but the laws of poverty
are inexorable. Just as she was leaving the school, the trustees came
and offered the advantages of the academy free, for another term. Did
ever such a gleam of sunshine come into a cloudy day?
But how could she pay her board? She owned a, bed and some table
linen, and taking these to a boarding house, a bargain was made
whereby she could have a room and board in exchange for her household
Her red-letter days had indeed come. She might never have a chance
for schooling again; so, without regard to health, she slept only four
hours out of the twenty-four, ate her meals hurriedly, and gave all
her time to her lessons. Not a scholar in the school could keep up
with her. When the teacher gave her Adams' _Latin Grammar_, telling
her to commit such portions as were usual in going over the book the
first time, she learned them all in three days!
When the term closed, she had no difficulty in finding a place to
teach. All the towns around had heard of the surprising scholar, Mary
Lyon, and probably hoped she could inspire the same scholarship in her
pupils, a matter in which she was most successful.
As soon as her schools were finished, she would spend the money in
obtaining instruction in some particular study, in which she thought
herself deficient. Now she would go into the family of Rev. Edward
Hitchcock, afterward president of Amherst College, and study natural
science of him, meantime taking lessons, of his wife in drawing
and painting. Now she would study penmanship, following the copy
as closely as a child. Once when a teacher, in deference to her
reputation, wrote the copy in Latin, she handed it back and asked him
to write in English, lest when the books were examined, she might be
thought wiser than she really was. Thus conscientious was the young
She was now twenty-four, and had laid up enough money to attend the
school of Rev. Joseph Emerson, at Byfield. He was an unusual man in
his gifts of teaching and broad views of life. He had been blest with
a wife of splendid talents, and as Miss Lyon was wont to say, "Men
judge of the whole sex by their own wives," so Mr. Emerson believed
women could understand metaphysics and theology as well as men. He
discussed science and religion with his pupils, and the result was a
class of self-respecting, self-reliant, thinking women.
Miss Lyon's friends discouraged her going to Byfield, because they
thought she knew enough already. "Why," said they, "you will never be
a minister, and what is the need of going to school?" She improved her
time here. One of her classmates wrote home, "Mary sends love to all;
but time with her is too precious to spend it in writing letters. She
is gaining knowledge by handfuls."
The next year, an assistant was wanted in the Sanderson Academy. The
principal thought a man must be engaged. "Try Mary Lyon," said one of
her friends, "and see if she is not sufficient," and he employed her,
and found her a host. But she could not long be retained, for she
was wanted in a larger field, at Derry, N.H. Miss Grant, one of the
teachers at Mr. Emerson's school, had sent for her former bright
pupil. Mary was glad to be associated with Miss Grant, for she was
very fond of her; but before going, she must attend some lectures in
chemistry and natural history by Professor Eaton at Amherst. Had she
been a young man, how easily could she have secured a scholarship, and
thus worked her way through college; but for a young woman, neither
Amherst, nor Dartmouth, nor Williams, nor Harvard, nor Yale, with all
their wealth, had an open door. Very fond of chemistry, she could only
learn in the spare time which a busy professor could give.
Was the cheerful girl never despondent in these hard working years?
Yes; because naturally she was easily discouraged, and would have long
fits of weeping; but she came to the conclusion that such seasons of
depression were wrong, and that "there was too much to be done, for
her to spend her time in that manner." She used to tell her pupils
that "if they were unhappy, it was probably because they had so many
thoughts about themselves, and so few about the happiness of others."
The friend who had recommended her for the Sanderson Academy now
became surety for her for forty dollars' worth of clothing, and the
earnest young woman started for Derry. The school there numbered
ninety pupils, and Mary Lyon was happy. She wrote her mother, "I do
not number it among the least of my blessings that I am permitted to
_do something_. Surely I ought to be thankful for an active life."
But the Derry school was held only in the summers, so Miss Lyon
came back to teach at Ashfield and Buckland, her birthplace, for the
winters. The first season she had twenty-five scholars; the last, one
hundred. The families in the neighborhood took the students into their
homes to board, charging them one dollar or one dollar and twenty-five
cents per week, while the tuition was twenty-five cents a week. No
one would grow very rich on such an income. So popular was Miss Lyon's
teaching that a suitable building was erected for her school, and the
Ministerial Association passed a resolution of praise, urging her to
remain permanently in the western part of Massachusetts.
However, Miss Grant had removed to Ipswich, and had urged Miss Lyon
to join her, which she did. For six years they taught a large and most
successful school. Miss Lyon was singularly happy in her intercourse
with the young ladies. She won them to her views, while they scarcely
knew that they were being controlled. She would say to them: "Now,
young ladies, you are here at great expense. Your board and tuition
cost a great deal, and your time ought to be worth more than both;
but, in order to get an equivalent for the money and time you are
spending, you must be systematic, and that is impossible, unless you
have a regular hour for rising.... Persons who run round all day after
the half-hour they lost in the morning never accomplish much. You
may know them by a rip in the glove, a string pinned to the bonnet, a
shawl left on the balustrade, which they had no time to hang up, they
were in such a hurry to catch their lost thirty minutes. You will see
them opening their books and trying to study at the time of general
exercises in school; but it is a fruitless race; they never will
overtake their lost half-hour. Good men, from Abraham to Washington,
have been early risers." Again, she would say, "Mind, wherever it is
found, will secure respect.... Educate the women, and the men will be
educated. Let the ladies understand the great doctrine of seeking
the greatest good, of loving their neighbors as themselves; let them
indoctrinate their children in this fundamental truth, and we shall
have wise legislators."
"You won't do so again, will you, dear?" was almost always sure to win
a tender response from a pupil.
She would never allow a scholar to be laughed at. If a teacher spoke
jestingly of a scholar's capacity, Miss Lyon would say, "Yes, I know
she has a small mind, but we must do the best we can for her."
For nearly sixteen years she had been giving her life to the education
of girls. She had saved no money for herself, giving it to her
relatives or aiding poor girls in going to school. She was simple in
her tastes, the blue cloth dress she generally wore having been spun
and woven by herself. A friend tells how, standing before the mirror
to tie her bonnet, she said, "Well, I _may_ fail of Heaven, but I
shall be very much disappointed if I do--very much disappointed;" and
there was no thought of what she was doing with the ribbons.
Miss Lyon was now thirty-three years old. It would be strange indeed
if a woman with her bright mind and sunshiny face should not have
offers of marriage. One of her best opportunities came, as is often
the case, when about thirty, and Miss Lyon could have been made
supremely happy by it, but she had in her mind one great purpose, and
she felt that she must sacrifice home and love for it. This was the
building of a high-grade school or college for women. Had she decided
otherwise, there probably would have been no Mount Holyoke Seminary.
She had the tenderest sympathy for poor girls; they were the ones
usually most desirous of an education, and they struggled the hardest
for it. For them no educational societies were provided, and no
scholarships. Could she, who had no money, build "a seminary which
should be so moderate in its expenses as to be open to the daughters
of farmers and artisans, and to teachers who might be mainly dependent
for their support on their own exertions"?
In vain she tried to have the school at Ipswich established
permanently by buildings and endowments. In vain she talked with
college presidents and learned ministers. Nearly all were indifferent.
They could see no need that women should study science or the
classics. That women would be happier with knowledge, just as they
themselves were made happier by it, seemed never to have occurred to
them. That women were soon to do nine-tenths of the teaching in the
schools of the country could not be foreseen. Oberlin and Cornell,
Vassar and Wellesley, belonged to a golden age as yet undreamed of.
For two years she thought over it, and prayed over it, and when all
seemed hopeless, she would walk the floor, and say over and over
again, "Commit thy way unto the Lord. He will keep thee. Women _must_
be educated; they _must_ be." Finally a meeting was called in Boston
at the same time as one of the religious anniversaries. She wrote to
a friend, "Very few were present. The meeting was adjourned; and the
adjourned meeting utterly failed. There were not enough present to
organize, and there the business, in my view, has come to an end."
Still she carried the burden on her heart. She writes, in 1834,
"During the past year my heart has so yearned over the adult female
youth in the common walks of life, that it has sometimes seemed as
though a fire were shut up in my bones." She conceived the idea of
having the young women do the work of the house, partly to lessen
expenses, partly to teach them useful things, and also because she
says, "Might not this single feature do away much of the prejudice
against female education among common people?"
At last the purpose in her heart became so strong that she resigned
her position as a teacher, and went from house to house in Ipswich
collecting funds. She wrote to her mother, "I hope and trust that this
is of the Lord, and that He will prosper it. In this movement I have
thought much more constantly, and have felt much more deeply, about
doing that which shall be for the honor of Christ, and for the good
of souls, than I ever did in any step in my life." She determined
to raise her first thousand dollars from women. She talked in her
good-natured way with the father or the mother. She asked if they
wanted a new shawl or card-table or carpet, if they would not find a
way to procure it. Usually they gave five or ten dollars; some, only
a half-dollar. So interested did two ladies become that they gave one
hundred dollars apiece, and later, when their house was burned, and
the man who had their money in charge lost it, they worked with their
own hands and earned the two hundred, that their portion might not
fail in the great work.
In less than two months she had raised the thousand; but she
wrote Miss Grant, "I do not recollect being so fatigued, even to
prostration, as I have been for a few weeks past." She often quoted a
remark of Dr. Lyman Beecher's, "The wear and tear of what I cannot do
is a great deal more than the wear and tear of what I do." When she
became quite worn, her habit was to sleep nearly all the time, for two
or three days, till nature repaired the system.
She next went to Amherst, where good Dr. Hitchcock felt as deeply
interested for girls as for the boys in his college. One January
morning, with the thermometer below zero, three or four hours before
sunrise, he and Miss Lyon started on the stage for Worcester. Each was
wrapped in a buffalo robe, so that the long ride was not unpleasant.
A meeting was to be held, and a decision made as to the location of
the seminary, which, at last, was actually to be built. After a long
conference, South Hadley was chosen, ten miles south of Amherst.
One by one, good men became interested in the matter, and one
true-hearted minister became an agent for the raising of funds. Miss
Lyon was also untiring in her solicitations. She spoke before ladies'
meetings, and visited those in high station and low. So troubled were
her friends about this public work for a woman, that they reasoned
with her that it was in better taste to stay at home, and let
gentlemen do the work.
"What do I that is wrong?" she replied. "I ride in the stage coach
or cars without an escort. Other ladies do the same. I visit a family
where I have been previously invited, and the minister's wife, or
some leading woman, calls the ladies together to see me, and I lay our
object before them. Is that wrong? I go with Mr. Hawks [the agent],
and call on a gentleman of known liberality, at his own house, and
converse with him about our enterprise. What harm is there in that?
My heart is sick, my soul is pained, with this empty gentility, this
genteel nothingness. I am doing a great work. I cannot come down."
Pitiful, that so noble a woman should have been hampered by public
opinion. How all this has changed! Now, the world and the church
gladly welcome the voice, the hand, and the heart of woman in their
At last, enough money was raised to begin the enterprise, and the
corner-stone of Mount Holyoke Seminary was laid, Oct. 3, 1836. "It was
a day of deep interest," writes Mary Lyon. "The stones and brick and
mortar speak a language which vibrates through my very soul."
"With thankful heart and busy hands she watched the progress of the
work. Every detail was under her careful eye. She said: "Had I a
thousand lives, I could sacrifice them all in suffering and hardship,
for the sake of Mount Holyoke Seminary. Did I possess the greatest
fortune, I could readily relinquish it all, and become poor, and more
than poor, if its prosperity should demand it."
Finally, in the autumn of 1837, the seminary was ready for pupils.
The main building, four stories high, had been erected. An admirable
course of study had been provided. For the forty weeks of the school
year, the charges for board and tuition were sixty dollars,--only one
dollar and twenty-five cents per week. Miss Lyon's own salary was but
two hundred a year and she never would receive anything higher.
The accommodations were only for eighty pupils, but one hundred and
sixteen came the first year.
While Miss Lyon was heartily loved by her scholars, they yet respected
her good discipline. It was against the rules for any one to absent
herself from meals without permission to do so. One of the young
ladies, not feeling quite as fresh as usual, concluded not to go down
stairs at tea time, and to remain silent on the subject. Miss Lyon's
quick eye detected her absence. Calling the girl's room-mate to her,
she asked, "Is Miss ---- ill?"
"Oh, no," was the reply, "only a little indisposed, and she
commissioned me to carry her a cup of tea and cracker."
"Very well, I will see to it."
After supper, the young lady ascended to her room, in the fourth
story, found her companion enjoying a glorious sunset, and seating
herself beside her, they began an animated conversation. Presently
there was a knock. "Come in!" both shouted gleefully, when lo! in
walked Mary Lyon, with the tea and cracker. She had come up four
flights of stairs; but she said every one was tired at night, and she
could as well bring up the supper as anybody. She inquired with great
kindness about the young lady's health, who, greatly abashed, had
nothing to say. She was ever after present at meal time, unless sick
The students never forgot Miss Lyon's plain, earnest words. When they
entered, they were told that they were expected to do right without
formal commands; if not, they better go to some smaller school, where
they could receive the peculiar training needed by little girls. She
urged loose clothing and thick shoes. "If you will persist in killing
yourselves by reckless exposure," she would say, "we are not willing
to take the responsibility of the act. We think, by all means, you
better go home and die, in the arms of your dear mothers."
Miss Lyon had come to her fiftieth birthday. Her seminary had
prospered beyond her fondest hopes. She had raised nearly seventy
thousand dollars for her beloved school, and it was out of debt.
Nearly two thousand pupils had been at South Hadley, of whom a large
number had become missionaries and teachers. Not a single year had
passed without a revival, and rarely did a girl leave the institution
without professing Christianity.
She said to a friend shortly after this fiftieth birthday: "It was the
most solemn day of my life. I devoted it to reflection and prayer. Of
my active toils I then took leave. I was certain that before another
fifty years should have elapsed, I should wake up amid far different
scenes, and far other thoughts would fill my mind, and other
employments would engage my attention. I felt it. There seemed to be
no ladder between me and the world above. The gates were opened, and
I seemed to stand on the threshold. I felt that the evening of my days
had come, and that I needed repose."
And the repose came soon. The last of February, 1849, a young lady
in the seminary died. Miss Lyon called the girls together and spoke
tenderly to them, urging them not to fear death, but to be ready to
meet it. She said, "There is nothing in the universe that I am afraid
of, but that I shall not know and do all my duty." Beautiful words!
carved shortly after on her monument.
A few days later, Mary Lyon lay upon her death-bed. The brain had been
congested, and she was often unconscious. In one of her lucid moments,
her pastor said, "Christ precious?" Summoning all her energies, she
raised both hands, clasped them, and said, "Yes." "Have you trusted
Christ too much?" he asked. Seeing that she made an effort to speak,
he said, "God can be glorified by silence." An indescribable smile lit
up her face, and she was gone.
On the seminary grounds the beloved teacher was buried, her pupils
singing about her open grave, "Why do we mourn departing friends?"
A beautiful monument of Italian marble, square, and resting upon a
granite pedestal, marks the spot. On the west side are the words:--
THE FOUNDER OF
MOUNT HOLYOKE FEMALE SEMINARY,
AND FOR TWELVE YEARS
FOR THIRTY-FIVE YEARS,
AND OF MORE THAN
THREE THOUSAND PUPILS.
BORN, FEBRUARY 28, 1797;
DIED, MARCH 5, 1849.
What a devoted, heroic life! and its results, who can estimate?
Her work has gone steadily on. The seminary grounds now cover
twenty-five acres. The main structure has two large wings, while a
gymnasium; a library building, with thirteen thousand volumes; the
Lyman Williston Hall, with laboratories and art gallery; and the
new observatory, with fine telescope, astronomical clock, and other
appliances, afford such admirable opportunities for higher education
as noble Mary Lyon could hardly have dared to hope for. The property
is worth about three hundred thousand dollars. How different from
the days when half-dollars were given into Miss Lyon's willing hands!
Nearly six thousand students have been educated here, three-fourths of
whom have become teachers, and about two hundred foreign missionaries.
Many have married ministers, presidents of colleges, and leading men
in education and good works.
The board and tuition have become one hundred and seventy-five dollars
a year, only enough to cover the cost. The range of study has been
constantly increased and elevated to keep pace with the growing demand
that women shall be as fully educated as men. Even Miss Lyon, in those
early days, looked forward to the needs of the future, by placing in
her course of study, Sullivan's _Political Class-Book_, and Wayland's
_Political Economy_. The four years' course is solid and thorough,
while the optional course in French, German, and Greek is admirable.
Eventually, when our preparatory schools are higher, all our colleges
for women will have as difficult entrance examinations as Harvard and
The housework at Mount Holyoke Seminary requires but half an hour each
day for each of the two hundred and ninety-seven pupils. Much time
is spent wisely in the gymnasium, and in boating on the lake near by.
Habits of punctuality, thoroughness, and order are the outcome of life
in this institution. An endowment of twenty thousand dollars, called
"the Mary Lyon Fund," is now being raised by former students for
the Chair of the Principal. Schools like the Lake Erie Seminary at
Painesville, Ohio, have grown out of the school at South Hadley.
Truly, Mary Lyon was doing a great work, and she could not come down.
Between such a life and the ordinary social round there can be no
The English ivy grows thickly over Miss Lyon's grave, covering it like
a mantle, and sending out its wealth of green leaves in the spring. So
each year her own handiwork flourishes, sending out into the world
its strongest forces, the very foundation of the highest
civilization,--educated and Christian wives and mothers.