Posted on June 6 2017 by Mount Holyoke College
Findings from 180 years of The Mount Holyoke Experience
Ensuring archival content is digitally accessible and discoverable by researchers is vital to understanding the experiences of women in higher education. Here at Mount Holyoke, we’ve incorporated a dedicated process for applying high-quality descriptive metadata to our items on the College Women website. This has meant developing a great deal of familiarity with the content by—you guessed it—reading it all! This ensures that individuals can find what they’re looking for within College Women...but it also facilitates the discovery of unknown gems through serendipitous encounters with artifacts that researchers may not have known existed. As we’ve progressed in describing the materials bound for inclusion into the site, it has become clear that our students have always had a great sense of humor and a willingness to cross boundaries.
At Mount Holyoke, much has been documented1 about the hurdles the college’s founder, Mary Lyon, faced when she questioned the status quo in terms of women’s education. Nevertheless, she persevered and established what was to become the first of the Seven Sisters. Her achievement meant that women from an array of socioeconomic backgrounds2 were able to pursue their education at Mount Holyoke Seminary from its founding in 1837. There was no shortage of young women eager to attend, and from its early years the school consisted of students from many different backgrounds who lived and learned together. Mount Holyoke College’s Archives and Special Collections has plenty to offer in terms of the experiences of these young women in adjusting both to each other and to life at the Seminary. From one city-born student’s amusement over her country roommate’s reference to “vittles”, to a none-too-kind description of a fellow student as a “prodigious monster” during an 1847 weigh-in, the documents paint a colorful picture of the life of the women who attended the college in its early years. Student Mary Atwood appears to have found the behavior of one of her “wild” peers comment-worthy in a letter to her family:
There is one wild one here at least, this year, a Miss Eddy, from the west - the daughter of a minister. One day she was wiping dishes, on the blue crockery circle, when giving a leap she sprung upon the table among all the dishes. Miss Lyon happened to be in one corner of the domestic hall, and saw the wondrous feat. She went to her and as punishment told her that she need not do any more work for three days. Scarcely had she turned her back when Miss Eddy says in high glee, "That's the luckiest leap, I ever took in my life". Unfortunately Miss Lyon heard her, and told her that she should make all her time up, after the three days. I don't think she cared but very little about it.3
In a letter to her brother, Lucy Barlow provides a wry description of Miss Lyon’s helpful ideas when it came to getting her students to reflect on their behavior:
I have just returned from the Seminary hall, where we meet every afternoon, and have Miss Lyon talk to us. Would you like to know what she has been saying to us today? I will tell you. She says she had a very little thought, and that was, if every young lady would make a little book, and write down every thing [sic] that she forgets, or does wrongly during the day, every time she laughs when she ought not to...and by that means avoid doing so again, it would be a very good plan.4
The content on the College Women website is emblematic of the character of the women of Mount Holyoke. As our recent graduates move on to their new adventures, they are poised to join a long line of women who weren’t afraid to challenge assumptions, and laugh about it on the way.
2 For instance, L.T. Guilford: https://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/mountholyoke/mshm132.html
3 Mary Atwood (1849), 1847 June 16. Collection: Alumnae Biographical Files
4 Lucy Barlow (x1847), 1845 March 12. Collection: Alumnae Biographical Files