The name of this post is actually a goofy song my husband made up to mock (in a friendly way) the sports teams of my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College. Our athletes are known (in a sort of low key way) as the Lions or Lyons, after the college's founder. Founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke is the oldest American women's college, the fruits of Mary Lyon's extraordinary efforts.
After touring a number of colleges between Virginia and Maine, I decided I really liked the atmosphere and the classes at Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke would probably be considered academically prestigious in many quarters, but at my boarding school, brimming as it was with academic high achievers, Mount Holyoke wasn't considered any great shakes. I experienced strong doubts about myself and my choice the summer before I started college as I listened to friends talk excitedly about going to places like Harvard and Brown. In one particularly painful moment, a friendly acquaintance, well meaning and Princeton bound, gasped, "But you're so smart!" when she heard where I was headed. When I moved onto campus in the fall, my doubts mounted as it sunk in that I would be in a virtually all-female environment for four looooooong years.
Those four years turned out to be a great academic experience. My isolation from male peers was tempered by frequent trips to Manhattan and a struggling artist boyfriend. But it was the historical example of founder Mary Lyon that got me through my worst periods of doubt. I have always been very aware of the history of my surroundings, and Mount Holyoke probably has the most inspiring history (for me anyway) of any American institution of higher education.
Mary Lyon was the daughter of a farmer who had fought in the Revolutionary War. She grew up in western Massachusetts, which was something of a wilderness during the early part of the nineteenth century. Although she had numerous domestic responsibilities as a child and an adolescent, she was also an outstanding student and became an acclaimed teacher. Mary Lyon's dream was to make university education available to female students. Although there were plenty of schools for women that emphasized the arts and domestic pursuits, not a one offered an education equivalent to that available at the numerous men-only universities already in existence. The learned men at places like Amherst and Yale scoffed when Mary Lyon proposed that their instutions open their doors to women.
So Mary Lyon rode around New England for three long years from 1834 to 1837 soliciting sufficient funds to open a real college for eighty women. Her college was unique in its academic rigor for women. Mary Lyon's academic passion was for chemistry and she insisted that her students receive as thorough a grounding in the sciences as their male peers, including lab and field work. Mount Holyoke's chemistry department has a particularly strong reputation to this day.
Mary Lyon's vision and her determination to see it through are revered on campus even now. On Founder's Day in November, the seniors, dressed in their graduation robes, gather at Mary Lyon's grave (which is on campus) and eat ice cream (brrrr . . .) At graduation, the seniors, along with a host of alumnae present for reunions, march a winding route through the campus in white dresses bearing laurel wreaths which we ultimately drape on the wrought iron gates around Mary Lyon's grave. We used to refer to this custom derisively as "the virgin parade," but when it came time to do it, I didn't feel at all like a dork, as I had expected. I felt honored.
More information about Mary Lyon is available here.