Today, November 8, is the 180th anniversary of the opening of Mount Holyoke College, the oldest institution for the higher education of women in the United States. Educator Mary Lyon founded the school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1837, at a time when women had few opportunities to obtain a college education. Lyon named the school Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a mountain that stands near South Hadley. The college adopted its present name in 1893.
Lyon served as the school’s principal until 1849, establishing strict entrance requirements and a challenging course of study that did not include cooking or other homemaking skills. It was one of the original members of the “Seven Sisters,” an association of women’s colleges that also included Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. “Seven Sisters” refers to the Pleiades, seven sister goddesses of ancient Greek mythology who became stars in the sky. Mount Holyoke’s curriculum emphasizes liberal arts and sciences.
Well-known alumnae of Mount Holyoke include the poet Emily Dickinson; the physician Virginia Apgar; the playwright Wendy Wasserstein; former governor Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut; Frances Perkins, the first woman U.S. Cabinet member; and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. Mount Holyoke’s current enrollment of some 2,200 students includes women (and, since 2014, transgender students) from 47 states and 57 countries.
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Image 1: Mary Lyon Hall, seen here in 1908, has housed administrative offices, classrooms, and a chapel at Mount Holyoke College since 1897. Credit: Library of Congress
Image 2: This daguerreotype (early photo) shows Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College, in 1845. Credit: Public Domain (Mount Holyoke College Archives)