proF Female Firsts: Mary Lyon and Sophia Smith, Pioneers of Women’s Education

Sophia Smith, founder of Smith College, once wrote, “It is not my design to render my sex any the less feminine, but to develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood & furnish women with means of usefulness, happiness, and honor now withheld from them.” While her concession to the concept of “femininity” reflects the considerably conservative times in which she lived, Smith’s message is as clear now as it was then: women deserve the benefits of education, and the opportunity to make their own ways in the world, just as much as men do.

It was this kind of philosophy that drove the founders of women’s colleges across the United States, and continues to fuel these institutions today. As of 2015, there were 44 active women’s colleges in the United States and Canada, though their popularity has unfortunately been on the decline for quite some time. But women’s colleges have a lot to offer, including, according to Marilyn Hammond of the Women’s College Coalition, welcoming, safe environments; socioeconomic and racial diversity; and top-notch academics (women’s colleges such as Smith, Barnard, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Scripps and others are consistently ranked in the top tier for liberal arts colleges). In addition, many of these colleges have a fascinating history of being led by visionary women who blazed a trail for future feminists.

Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College, was one such woman. Lyon has the distinction of being first: Mount Holyoke was established in 1837, the first women’s seminary with a curriculum equivalent to that of male seminaries. Born in 1797 and raised on a farm in Massachusetts, Lyon was drawn to education from an early age. Despite only attending school until age 13, she began teaching in a local schoolhouse at just 17. Her love of teaching drove her to continue her own education – not an easy path for a woman in the early 1800s. According to Mount Holyoke’s Mary Lyon website,

Despite the financial burden and a busy teaching schedule, Mary Lyon was determined to further her learning. In her own words, she gained “knowledge by the handfuls.” She alternated time spent in classrooms and at lectures – sometimes traveling three days by carriage to enroll at a school – with teaching and running a school.

Over the years, Lyon earned a reputation as a dedicated and inspiring educator, which allowed her to move into administration as Assistant Principal of the Ipswich Female Seminary (at the time, the term “seminary” referred to both secondary schools and colleges). But her ultimate goal was to establish her own educational institution for women, where others like her, with a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement, would be able to gain the formal education she herself never had – an education equivalent to that available to men. For three years, Lyon meticulously planned and developed her school, managing to raise funds despite poor economic conditions in the country. She faced ridicule because of her ideas and exhaustion due to constant travel and work. But it all paid off when she was able to found Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837 with an initial class of 80 students. While there were other female seminaries at the time, this one was unlike any other, as Lyon’s curriculum was as rigorous and well rounded as that of a male seminary and tuition was kept low to draw students from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Lyon’s vision and tenacity live on to this day at this institution, one of Massachusetts’s thriving “Seven Sisters” liberal arts colleges.

A similarly pioneering woman for her time, Sophia Smith followed in Lyon’s footsteps by founding Smith College, another of the Seven Sisters, which opened in 1875. Smith was born in 1796, also in Massachusetts, and like Lyon did not have the opportunity for a formal education. Instead, Smith educated herself through books and newspapers, voraciously reading literature, poetry, and social and political commentary. Smith led a life marked by tragedy and illness: three of her siblings died young, and Sophia herself suffered hearing issues, becoming nearly deaf by age 40. But the family did have some good fortune. After the death of their father, Sophia’s brother Austin invested their inheritance in the stock market. Like his father, Austin was frugal and skilled with money, and the inheritance grew into a fortune – one eventually left to Sophia after her siblings passed.

Under the guidance of her pastor, Smith went about the difficult work of deciding what to do with her fortune. By this point, she was elderly and alone, and wanted to put the money toward an educational purpose. She soon settled on a women-only institution of higher education – one, like Lyon’s, that would “furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our Colleges to young men.” In her will and testament, she wrote,

It is my opinion that by the education of women, what are called their “wrongs” will be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased, as teachers, as writers, as mothers, as members of society, their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.

To this day, it’s remarkable how current Sophia Smith’s statement of vision sounds. Smith College was chartered shortly after Smith’s death in 1870, and officially opened in 1875, with a class of 14 students. Ever since, it’s been a leading feminist institution that has graduated the likes of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Sylvia Plath and Julia Child, among others.

Just as it’s important to take stock of the present concerns of women in higher ed. and to set goals for the future, it’s also important to look back at those amazing women who made possible the education and growth of so many. It is from these figures that we can draw courage and inspiration to make further strides and to, in the words of Mary Lyon, “Go forward, attempt great things, accomplish great things."


Garsd, Jasmine. “Are Women’s Colleges Doomed? What Sweet Briar’s Demise Tells Us.” NPR. March 26, 2015.

“Mary Lyon.” Biography. June 11, 2014. Accessed August 30, 2017.

“Mary Lyon.” Mount Holyoke. Accessed August 30, 2017.

“Sophia Smith.” Smith College. Accessed August 30, 2017.

Williamson, Alicia. “Sophia Smith.” Quotabelle. September 2014. Accessed August 30, 2017.