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date: 12 November 2019

Lyon, Maryfree

(28 February 1797–05 March 1849)
  • Linda Eisenmann

Lyon, Mary (28 February 1797–05 March 1849), educator, was born in Buckland, Massachusetts, the daughter of Aaron Lyon and Jemima Shepard, farmers. The family farmed 100 rocky acres on a hillside near Baptist Corner, where many relatives lived and worshiped in that faith. Lyon’s father died before her sixth birthday, and until her mother remarried in 1810, the family worked together to sustain the farm. When Lyon’s mother relocated with her new husband to Ashfield, Massachusetts, Lyon stayed behind to support her brother Aaron in running the farm. Aaron paid her one dollar per week for her household management. After Aaron married, Lyon remained on the farm but was then better able to renew her intermittent attendance at local schools.

Lyon’s lifelong commitment to education started with the district schools in Buckland and Ashfield. She occasionally boarded with friends or relatives to permit attendance at schools some distance from home, a practice she continued in her teens and twenties. Her quick mind and sharp memory distinguished her early, and a teacher helped secure Lyon her first teaching job in Shelburne Falls in the summer of 1814. For the next ten years she alternated between teaching and her own schooling, a role not unusual in the early nineteenth century, when male and female teachers were often itinerant students paying their way through school.

In 1817 Lyon enrolled at the new Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, where she met Amanda White, an important friend whose family welcomed Lyon and long served as supporters. Over the next few years, Lyon taught and attended both Sanderson and Amherst academies.

In 1819 Aaron Lyon’s family moved to Stockton, New York, in hopes of better farming. Lyon thus was separated from the last of her family and spent the next years boarding with friends, relatives, and employers. In 1821 she and White entered Byfield Seminary, in eastern Massachusetts, run by the creative and influential teacher Rev. Joseph Emerson. Lyon’s experience at Byfield was one of the most significant in her life, introducing her to intellectual challenge paired with Christian commitment—a combination she would later instill at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Emerson was unusual in his support for the education of women, considering them men’s intellectual equals. Moreover, his commitment to evangelical religion was paramount, born during the Second Great Awakening in New England, a period from the 1820s through the 1830s of intense religious revivalism that encouraged individual religious conversion. Emerson’s attention to religion was welcomed by Lyon, whose Baptist upbringing stressed the importance of conversion. Although she had felt some surge of religious belief by 1816, it was 1822 before Lyon was formally baptized into the Congregational church.

Emerson gave Lyon another focus, however, by joining religious commitment to women’s emerging role as teachers. In the decades after the American Revolution, women’s public roles had been reconceived by a notion that historians term “Republican motherhood.” In this view, women’s presumed natural superiority in matters of morality and child care overcame societal concerns about their public activity, and women were increasingly viewed as “natural” teachers for America’s youth. During her career, Lyon would join other pioneers of women’s education in advancing this view by providing an important educational model for training women as teachers.

At Byfield, Lyon also became fast friends with Emerson’s dynamic assistant, Zilpah Polly Grant, who would become Lyon’s partner in educational efforts from 1823 to 1833. After Byfield, Lyon first taught at Sanderson Academy but soon pursued a wish to open her own school in Buckland, which she ran for ten-week winter terms between 1824 and 1830. For friendship’s sake, Lyon soon joined Grant at a new school, the Adams Female Academy in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Grant was hired as preceptress; Lyon, although formally a teacher, exercised considerable influence on the curriculum. The pair ran Adams for three years (1824–1827), while Lyon continued her prospering winter school in Buckland. In 1828 the Adams trustees, unhappy with the school’s strong evangelical focus, pushed Grant to resign by insisting that dancing be added to the curriculum.

Committed to their view of female education, Grant secured financial support from a group of investors to create Ipswich Female Seminary, initially bringing Lyon as a teacher for the summer terms. After a few exhausting years splitting her time between Buckland and Ipswich, Lyon agreed to join Grant full-time in 1830. Grant’s health had always been a concern, and she needed Lyon to help with her administrative and pedagogical work during Grant’s frequent health setbacks and travels, tasks that Lyon assumed with energy and good humor.

Ipswich was a strong success, prompting Lyon and Grant to conceive a plan to secure permanent funding for their work. When no support developed for endowing Ipswich, the two proposed a new establishment: The New England Female Seminary for Teachers, which could be located wherever support was strongest. This idea fared no better. The failure of the plans initially discouraged but did not deter Lyon in her belief that a seminary must be able to “outlive its present teachers”; in fact, Lyon’s efforts to endow the schools clarified her plan for Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Lyon believed in the curriculum of history, science, math, and philosophy that she and Grant had developed. She also supported the mission of preparing Christian female teachers. However, she wanted a wider body of students to enjoy the opportunities of strong female seminaries, wishing that daughters of the “middling classes” might afford schools like Ipswich. After the failure of their endowment plan, Lyon began to separate from Grant. Grant was frequently ill, often leaving Lyon in charge of all aspects of their joint endeavors. Contributing more to their separation, however, was Lyon’s belief that daughters of poorer families were the most necessary objects of female education. Grant had always relied on people of means for financial support and for providing students. Lyon had traveled during 1833, visiting schools around the country, laying her own plans. By 1834 she began her campaign to endow a seminary that would operate modestly enough to bring the best teacher training to poorer women.

Like other female school founders, Lyon turned to influential men to help her raise money and defend her ideas before a sometimes skeptical establishment. Her early supporters were longtime friend Edward Hitchcock, the Reverend Theophilus Packard, and Roswell Hawks, who became Mount Holyoke’s paid agent. In addition to these traditional methods, however, Lyon soon realized the potential in female organizations, especially those created to support education. In the 1820s and 1830s women had frequently started their own groups as well as female auxiliaries of organizations like the American Education Society, which raised money to support college men pursuing ministry training. Lyon’s unique contribution lay in realizing that these women, through small donations but long-term support, could serve as vital advocates for women’s education. Between 1834 and 1837, either with Hawks or alone, Lyon visited dozens of towns, raising money, support, and consciousness. In two years, she raised $15,000 from “the Christian public,” with gifts from more than 1,800 people in ninety towns. Building began in South Hadley, Massachusetts; the single large, all-purpose building was opened in 1837 to the seminary’s first class of eighty students.

Mount Holyoke grew steadily over its first decade, soon filling its capacity of 200. Once finances were stable, Lyon could attend to her ongoing concern: raising academic standards. As applications rose, she tightened entrance requirements and kept the minimum admission age at sixteen. One feature that did not change, however, was commitment to low tuition. Lyon’s seminary charged only $60 annually, one-third the cost of Ipswich. Some controversy surrounded Lyon’s methods of keeping low costs, however, with critics challenging her requirement of daily domestic work by all students and very low wages for her teachers, whom she viewed as “missionaries” to the cause of education.

Any difficulties that Mount Holyoke might have experienced as a new institution did not hinder its general strong progress. Lyon was frequently disheartened when one of her able assistant teachers left for other work or marriage. The biggest setback was a typhoid epidemic in the third year that struck forty of 120 students, killing nine.

The daily curriculum of the school was built on intellectual challenge and moral purpose, with Lyon as prime model. A list of seventy rules was reviewed daily by students and staff, with each student “self-reporting” her progress to a “section” of fifteen or twenty colleagues. The day was strictly governed by schedules, and students were always under the watchful eyes of teachers, who lived in the same building with them.

Lyon led Mount Holyoke for only a dozen years. She died in South Hadley from erysipelas, a streptococcal infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue. The disease hit her after a particularly hard period, after several family deaths.

Lyon joined other nineteenth-century advocates of education for women in creating new models for their education and their careers as teachers. Her unique contributions lay in demonstrating how an endowed institution for women (rather than one based on subscriptions or trustee contributions) could sustain itself and in organizing that institution to include women of the middle classes. Mount Holyoke experienced the permanence and growth that had eluded most other nineteenth-century women’s schools. Lyon’s commitment to training teachers was well realized; between 1838 and 1850 more than three-quarters of graduates became teachers. The strength of the Holyoke model was demonstrated in the numerous daughter colleges that appeared in the midwestern United States and abroad, all consciously following Lyon’s model. In creating this unique and effective model, Lyon followed her belief that her institution must “penetrate far into futurity,” and that its “great work of renovating a world” required permanence and financial endowment.


The Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections is the single best source of material on Lyon. The collection includes holograph and typed copies of letters and other documents. Lyon’s only publications were A Missionary Offering (1843), a plea for financial support of the widespread missionary movement, and seven versions of circulars promoting Mount Holyoke (1834–1839), which present her educational philosophy in crisp form.

In 1858 Lyon’s friend Edward Hitchcock, with the help of Zilpah Grant Banister, Eunice Caldwell Cowles, M. C. Eddy, and Hannah White published The Power of Christian Benevolence: Illustrated in the Life and Labors of Mary Lyon. This book contains hundreds of excerpts of Lyon’s letters over her lifetime; however, her friends edited some material rather heavily, and many originals do not survive. Later biographies are Fidelia Fiske, Recollections of Mary Lyon, with Selections from Her Instruction to the Pupils in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (1866); Beth Bradford Gilchrist, The Life of Mary Lyon (1910); and Marion Lansing, ed., Mary Lyon through Her Letters (1937). Sarah D. Locke Stow wrote an early history of the school, History of Mount Holyoke Seminary, South Hadley, Mass., during Its First Half-Century, 1837–1887 (1887).

A good modern biography is Elizabeth Alden Green’s Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke (1979); a biographical essay with attention to wider educational issues is Susan McIntosh Lloyd’s “Mary Lyon” in Women Educators in the United States, 1820–1993, ed. Maxine Schwartz Seller (1994). Recent scholarly appraisals of Lyon’s contributions include Kathryn Kish Sklar, “The Founding of Mount Holyoke College,” in Carol Ruth Berkin and Mary Beth Norton, Women of America: A History (1979); and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (1984).