Mary Lyon — the original crowdfunder

November 8, 2018 at 11:27 AM

This Founder’s Day, we celebrate Mary Lyon, a pioneer in women’s education. Her vision and conviction inspired the founding of Mount Holyoke College, the first institution of higher education for women. Today we commemorate Mary and her tireless work to open Mount Holyoke’s doors. Her fierce fundraising efforts were driven by her passionate conviction that women deserved access to higher education. That legacy is now carried on through the students that step on to this campus and pass through the gates into the world ready to lead. It also endures through continued philanthropic support from the community of alumnae, parents and friends who share Mary’s belief that an investment in women’s education is a powerful tool to empower future leaders and innovators.

Mount Holyoke College’s legacy of strong, tenacious women began with its very own founder, Mary Lyon. Born of humble beginnings in 1797, Mary lost her father at age five, leaving her mother to raise seven children and maintain a hundred acres of farmland. When she was 13 years old, her mother remarried and moved to her new husband’s home, leaving behind young Mary and her brother, Aaron, to tend house and run the family farm. Though she was a gifted student, Mary had no choice but to leave school when her mother left.

While she longed to return to the education she had been forced to abandon, it was not until she was offered a teaching position in a nearby town at age 17 that she returned to the classroom. She happily accepted, and it was in this role of instructor that she reignited a passion for education and higher learning. While only a few schools at the time offered more than basic elementary-level instruction for girls, they were expensive. Mary was determined to further her education, however,  and after years of scraping together savings, completed her schooling at a female academy located in Byfield. For the next 20 years, she taught at schools across Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, becoming an authority on the education of women, developing her educational philosophy and gaining experience in managing a school.

Inspired by her own struggles to obtain an education, Mary worked hard to expand academic opportunities for young women and resolved to open an institution of higher learning for women to rival the all-male Ivy Leagues. She was over 35 when she struck out on her own in 1834 to found Mount Holyoke — without the help of legacy, donated building, financial backing from a church or even one rich patron.

Undeterred, she set out on a fierce fundraising journey, starting with a mere $1,000, which had been donated by colleagues, former students and acquaintances. Mary’s undertaking provoked unrelenting criticism: her cause was widely considered subversive, and soliciting funds as an unaccompanied woman was stunningly unladylike. Nonetheless, she persisted, determined not only to raise enough funds to open the school but to subsidize the cost of the education so that gifted girls from all socioeconomic backgrounds could attend. Armed with her green velvet purse, in which she stored all donations, she spent two years on this crowdfunding crusade, persuading others of the merits of her cause and fueled by the burning conviction that women deserved the same educational opportunities as men. The donations she collected ranged from six cents to $1,000, as well as quilts and bedding from women's sewing circles and necessary items like stoves and furniture.

Following three years of fierce fundraising, the doors to the Mount Holyoke Seminary for women opened on November 8, 1837, welcoming an inaugural class of 80 students. In addition to completing rigorous courses in logic, natural history, English literature, the sciences and advanced mathematics, all students were expected to fulfill domestic duties like cooking and cleaning in order to keep operating expenses low. The entering students felt privileged to have been given the opportunity to study at Mary Lyon's new institution. At the time, there were 120 colleges for men in the United States but none for women, and Mary knew the work she began would have lasting impacts on generations of women to come. “This will be an era in female education,” she declared. “The work will not stop with this institution.”

Mount Holyoke continued to grow and thrive,  inspiring the establishment of other women’s colleges. As the first of what would become the historic Seven Sisters, Mount Holyoke rose in reputation and prestige, cementing a legacy of excellence in education and shaping strong, smart, tenacious women to go into the world and make an impact. Today, the College continues to be a leader in women’s education.

The Mount Holyoke student body is bright, bold and determined. They are diverse, committed to justice and equality, and walk through the gates upon graduation ready to take on the world. They lead, both during their studies and after graduation. They live Mary Lyon’s legacy. From 1837 to 2018, much has remained constant: Mount Holyoke continues to be a pioneer for women’s education and its graduates continue to make history. Mount Holyoke also remains an institution dedicated to the accessibility of education, regardless of background.

It was Mary Lyon, the original crowdfunder and visionary, who knew how pivotal education was to empowerment. Her philanthropic work is now carried on through the support of alumnae and friends of the College who know the transformative power of a Mount Holyoke education. They know Mount Holyoke does more than educate: it amplifies voices, opens up doors, enable opportunities, and helps propel students to achieve their dreams, whatever they may be. Today’s philanthropy doesn’t involve a green velvet purse; instead it involves the community of people who believe in the College’s past, present, and future and are dedicated to continuing the work Mary Lyon began almost two centuries ago.

Learn more about Founder's Day, Mary Lyon and the founding of Mount Holyoke:

Rachel Nix ’20

Written by Rachel Nix ’20

Rachel, a politics major and sociology minor, is a marketing assistant in the Office of Advancement and a contributor to the MHC Forever blog. Hailing from West Virginia, she serves on MHC’s Admissions and Financial Aid Advisory Committee, is deeply involved with social justice initiatives and loves spending her free time with friends, reading on the green or trying to pet Jorge, the goose.