Mary Lyon: A fierce pioneer for change

Published 9:34 am Saturday, February 1, 2020

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During the 18th and 19th centuries new ideas of the enlightenment regarding religion and education were discussed and debated in places such as coffeehouses. Education was a focal point for women and Mary Lyon was a pioneer in that regard.

On Feb. 28, 1797, Mary was born to Aaron and Jemina Lyon on the family farm near Buckland, Massachusetts. Her father was a Revolutionary War veteran. She had a brother named Aaron. Mary was raised in the Baptist faith although her parents were followers of Jonathan Edwards’s teachings.

Edwards was a minister in the First Great Awakening, which stressed a reaffirmation of one’s belief in God. Later, Mary converted to Congregationalism. In the early 19th century education for girls was considered unimportant and in most New England towns school was 10-months long divided into winter and summer terms. Girls could only attend in the summer while boys attended in the winter because summer was for farm work. Can you imagine sitting on the school steps hoping to catch part of a teacher’s lesson?

Yet, Mary was fortunate that in her hometown, girls were allowed to go to school year-round even though at 13 she left school. She had more education than most girls.

In 1814 Mary began her teaching career at 17 at a summer school in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. During this time, you didn’t need formal training to teach just a good reputation as a student. Getting paid 75 cents a week teaching children from ages 4 to 10 in a crowded one-room schoolhouse was tough. Mary furthered her own education while working — traveling to lectures and classrooms to learn all she could. She even used her inheritance from her father to pay for her education.

Eventually Mary opened her own school in Buckland after managing a school developing an education philosophy, which was broad and inclusive — incorporating math and science. In fact, she was an assistant principal at Ipswich Female Seminary.

On Nov. 8, 1837, Mary opened Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts with an enrollment of 80 students. She established an affordable college for women with an advanced curriculum equal to men’s, but since the U. S. was in an economic depression, she sought financial help from the evangelical community persuading them to give funds. Mary served as principal at Mt. Holyoke for 12 years and it was renamed Mt. Holyoke College in 1895.

The Mt. Holyoke’s student age requirement was 17. Graduation requirements involved a curriculum of seven courses in math and science. The science courses included lab experiments. Field trips were encouraged.

Students were encouraged to pursue careers such as college professor and researcher. Chemistry was a favorite of Mary’s, which she taught. In addition, Latin, English, French, algebra, history and philosophy were essentials.

Furthermore, exercise was vital to the students’ well-being. Moreover, religious life was paramount to the students experience with Bible study, chapel, worship services and prayer meetings.

In order to keep down the cost of upkeep, young ladies handled the domestic work of the school. Mary encouraged missionary work and in her publication “A Missionary Offering,” she stressed the importance of the calling and invited missionaries to speak to her students. Many of her students participated in overseas missions. Schools around the world were founded on Mt. Holyoke’s principles.

Unfortunately, in 1849 Mary died, at the age of 52, due to erysipelas.

To this day Mt. Holyoke remains a college at the forefront of women’s education. At first, African-American women were not admitted in the school, which disappointed me. Isn’t that the purpose of missionary work? If I could time travel I would ask Mary why she did not do so.

I will, however, acknowledge that Mary changed the scope of women’s education propelling it into new heights both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at the Central High Museum, lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at