Read MARY LYON. of Lives of Girls Who Became Famous, free online book, by Sarah Knowles Bolton, on

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, Fe, 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 performed them.

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 time.”

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 astonished teacher.

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 her purse.

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 articles.

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 school-teacher.

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 philanthropic work.

At last, enough money was raised to begin the enterprise, and the corner-stone of Mount Holyoke Seminary was laid, Oc, 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 in bed.

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:

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 Yale.

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 comparison.

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.