There have always been intelligent women but their formal education was often limited to reading, writing, and basic math—enough to keep a household and access religious books for the moral upbringing of children. A woman from a wealthy family might go to a finishing school to learn social graces and arts befitting of a lady. It wasn’t until the 19th century that four-year college degrees started to be available to women.
Between 1821 and 1861 the number of colleges offering four-year academic degrees for women went from zero to more than twenty. There is some debate over which one counts as the first and which woman was the first graduate but it all depends on what criteria are used. It’s more important that it happened than who was first.
One of the pioneers in higher education was Mary Lyons, founder of Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837. Currently known as Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, it became the model for women’s colleges across America. Lyons had several key principles that set Mt. Holyoke apart from other female seminaries at the time. The most revolutionary one was that the education was to be the equivalent of a male education including rigorous science and math. She felt that women were capable and the students lived up to the challenge. Mary Lyons, herself, even taught the chemistry classes. Mt. Holyoke had a lower tuition so that women of modest means could afford it. Ms. Lyons had struggled to pay for her own education and did not want it to be a barrier to others. To offset the low tuition, all students were expected to do basic domestic duties at the college. There were extremely thorough entrance exams so that every student accepted was capable of doing the course work. Finally, she was extremely wise to make sure that her school had a board of trustees rather than be governed by a religious institution or wealthy donor. She established a wide base of financial support across all levels of society. Donations to the school ranged from six cents to a thousand dollars and welcomed donations of quilts, stoves, and other goods which allowed Mt. Holyoke to have the dignity of self-sovereignty —just like the women it was educating.
Many of the first graduates from these colleges would go on to be top leaders in the suffrage and abolition movements. Some will be the first doctors, scientists, and lawyers. Many will become teachers, founding schools across America and even in remote places around the world. They learned to find their voice and when they did, they roared.
This week’s song pick:
“Roar” by Katy Perry https://youtu.be/CevxZvSJLk8
Episode 03 Sources:
Some of the contenders for first college degrees for women: