Jennifer L. Crispen, Associate Professor of Physical Education and Athletics


Four female seminaries shaped women's education in the early 1800s: Emma Willard's in Troy, NY (1821); Catherine Beecher's in Hartford, CT (1928); Zilpah Grant's in Ipswich, MA (1928); and Mary Lyon's in South Hadley, MA (1837). (1, p.67) Each was concerned with the quality of the educational experience, and each was a proponent of original thought. Although all four were influential in the development of higher education for women, only two exist today: Emma willard's as an independent secondary school, and Mary Lyon's as Mount Holyoke College, a nationally recognized women's liberal arts college. (14, p.11)

Zilpah Grant was Mary Lyon's mentor, first as an influential older student at Byfield, and later as her teaching superviser at Ipswich. They enjoyed both a friendship and a professional relationship, which were intensified by their shared belief in a seminary system that was to shape women's education in America. (14, p.14) The evangelistic work of Grant and Lyon "linked the highest available course of study to a system of discipline and a dorm of building that propelled its students outward into the world." (14, p.12) In founding Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon intended "to turn daughters who were acted upon into women capable of self-propelled action." (14, p.12) Women who had been bound by societal conventions of tradition and nature found their lives changed by a planned system that included "academic subjects to train the mind as an instrument of reason; domestic work and a carefully regulated day to meet material needs and to protect health; a known, clear sequence of each day to lend order and predictability; a corps of transformed teachers who provided proper models for imitation; and a building shaped like a dwelling house as the proper setting for study, prayer, work, and rest." (14, p.12) The system was strikingly effective; seventy percent of Mount Holyoke's graduates followed their mentors into the teaching profession. (14, p.12)

Bricks and mortar.

Architecturally, Lyon's female seminary was modeled after the asylum building, an institution which enclosed men as well as women. These massive structures provided space for self-contained communities resembling small villages, with everything necessary for existence under one roof. The buildings were considered appropriate for hospitals, orphanages and academies of either sex, because the style and form of the buildings afforded mechanisms for both support and control. The seminary becomes significant in studying gender when it becomes apparent that it was used primarily for women's colleges but almost never for men's. (14, p.357) Already convinced by her own educational background that a regimented day in a controlled environment was the answer to successfully educating female pupils, Mary Lyon had the opportunity to observe the asylum system firsthand when her sister was institutionalized. Lyon credited the system for healing her sister; this helps to explain the interesting parallels between her development of the seminary system and theories of treating mental illness popular in New England at that time. Asylum designers believed that putting patients under strict outer order recreated in them inner order; the theory being that disorder was the critical cause of their psychic distress. Proponents of women's education embraced the asylum system as the solution for the psychic and physical stresses the traditional, rigorous male curriculum was expected to create in female students. (23, p.56) Paterned after Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Vassar (1865) and Wellesley (1875) rose as single gigantic buildings that not only housed and fed all faculty and students, but gave them spaces for classrooms, laboratories, gymnasia, chapel, library, and museums.

To be continued...

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