Monday, May 24, 2010

[Mary Lyon]

     A women's college is not for every woman. 
     Particularly a women's college like Mount Holyoke, isolated in western Massachusetts with few outside distractions. 
     After one semester, some women transfer to co-ed schools with party scenes and unisex dorms. 
     But for those who stay, it's probably not overstatement to say we'd walk barefoot over glowing coals for our alma mater.
     The Marines holler, "Sermper Fi." 
     We cry out, "Mary Lyon!"
     At my 25th reunion this weekend, my Mount Holyoke classmates wore bracelets that read "WWMLD?" -- What Would Mary Lyon Do?
     In 1834, Mary Lyon left her position as assistant principal at Ipswich Female Seminary to spend the next three years crusading for a women's college that resembled Princeton and Harvard and Yale, all of which excluded females. Contacting people as far away as Michigan (not yet a state), Mary Lyon persuaded wealthy donors that young women deserved an education equal to that of their brothers and fathers. 
     Early donations ranged from six cents to one-thousand dollars. 
     Undeterred by an economic depression gripping the United States, Mary Lyon wrote ads and pamphlets announcing the school's plan. Despite severe exhaustion, she developed a curriculum, chose the school's location, and supervised the design of its first building. 
     Some people donated quilts and bedding. 
     Mary Lyon hired teachers and put the school's first applicants through rigorous entrance exams. She stocked the classrooms with science equipment and got that first building constructed.
     All the while, she endured ridicule from people insisting higher education was "wasted" on women. 
     This year, Mount Holyoke College turned 173 years old. The first of the Seven Sisters.
     For the class of 1985, our reunion was more than a trip down memory lane. It was a reflection on how Mount Holyoke transformed us from teenage girls to women of courage, curiosity, and conviction.
     When Raleigh Harmon first rolled into my creative life, I quickly realized she was a Mount Holyoke alumnae. The school offers one of best undergraduate science programs in the country, particularly in geology. (In 1837, Mary Lyon, who taught herself chemistry, required seven courses in science and mathematics for graduation, a requirement unheard of at other female seminaries.)
     Beyond college, Raleigh continues to exhibit Mount Holyoke hallmarks. Smart but not arrogant. Thoughtful but not wise in her own eyes. Never expecting anyone to make life easier, she will not hesitate to help others along the way. 
     For 173 years, beginning with Mary Lyon's example, Mount Holyoke women have exuded a certain gracious grit. 
     Educators, innovators, scientists-- like Virginia Apgar, class of 1929, who developed the Apgar Test for newborns. 
     Corporate heads, challenging artists, cabinet members -- like Elaine Chow, class of 1975, Labor Secretary under President George W. Bush, following the footsteps of Frances Perkins, class of 1902, the country's first female cabinet member, and the first head of Department of Labor. 
     But there's something else. Equally crucial.
     When the driver picked me up at the airport, heading for campus, he described his years as a bus driver around New England. 
     "You what I noticed about you Mount Holyoke girls?" he said, in a thick Massachusetts accent. "When you got off the bus, you always turned to me and said, 'Thank you.'"
      Yes. That's what Mary Lyon would do.