Sophia Smith

Women in Education: Founder of Smith College

Sophia Smith (1796-1870) founded Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1870 with the substantial estate she inherited from her father and siblings. The first woman in America to endow a college for women, Sophia Smith was not a social crusader, but she did believe that women’s power for good would “be incalculably enlarged” by higher education.

Born on August 27, 1796 in Hatfield, Massachusetts, Sophia Smith was the fourth of seven children – and the first daughter – of prosperous farmers Joseph Smith and Lois White Smith. Of the seven Smith offspring, three died young and only Joseph Jr. married, producing no heirs. Sophia lived with her sister Harriet and brother Austin at the family homestead, which still stands at 22 Main Street in Hatfield.

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Mary Lyon

Women’s History Month Biography

Women in Education: Founder of Mount Holyoke College

Mary Lyon (1797-1849) taught and managed schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire before establishing Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1837, the first college for women in the United States. Within two years, she raised $15,000 to establish the school that became the model for institutions of higher education for women. Lyon firmly believed that women must be well educated to contribute significantly to society’s greater good, and endeavored to make her school affordable for students of modest means.

Childhood and Early Years
Mary Lyon was born February 28, 1797 on a farm near Buckland, Massachusetts. Her father Aaron Lyon, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, died when Mary was five, leaving her mother Jemina to raise seven children and manage a 100-acre farm on her own. At her mother’s side Mary learned the skills and crafts necessary for a New England farm girl.

In the early 19th century, most people felt that girls did not need to be educated to become wives, mothers and caretakers of the house. Mary began her education at the village school, about a mile from her home. When the school was moved farther away three years later, she left her family and lived for the school term with relatives and local families. She did chores to pay for her room and board.

Mary was thirteen when her mother remarried and moved into her new husband’s home, leaving Mary behind. Mary left school to keep the house for her brother Aaron, who took over the family farm. He paid his sister a weekly wage of one silver dollar. Mary had already received more schooling than most girls of her time.

In 1814, townspeople offered seventeen-year-old Mary Lyon her first teaching job at a summer school in nearby Shelburne Falls. At the time teachers needed no formal training, and her reputation as an excellent student years earlier was enough of a qualification. Female teachers were especially in demand because many men were moving west. The job paid 75 cents a week, far less than the $10 to $12 a month a male teacher received.

Mary’s modest beginnings fostered her life-long commitment to establishing educational opportunities for girls from middling and poor backgrounds. Although private female academies, often called seminaries, were springing up in New England, women of modest means could not afford the tuition. Moreover, they often taught only drawing and needlework, while male students studied geometry, science and Latin.

Despite the financial burden and a busy teaching schedule, Mary Lyon was determined to further her own education. She alternated time in the classroom and at lectures, sometimes traveling three days by carriage to enroll at a school. Against the advice of her family, Lyon paid for her education by cashing in a small inheritance from her father.

At age 20 Lyon began studying in earnest at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, Massachusetts. There she studied mathematics, logic, speech, grammar and geography. She learned etiquette in the home of attorney Thomas White where she boarded. White’s daughter Amanda became Lyon’s lifelong friend, and in 1821 they went off to the Byfield Massachusetts Female Seminary together. By this time, having alternated between teaching and attending school at both Sanderson and Amherst Academy, Lyon was ready to devote herself to full-time study.

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Jarena Lee

First Woman Preacher in the AME Church

Jarena Lee was a 19th century African American woman who left behind an eloquent account of her religious experiences, first published as The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee in 1836 and later revised and expanded as Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee in 1849. She was also the first woman authorized to preach by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Jarena Lee was born on February 11, 1783 in Cape May, New Jersey to free but poor black parents. Because of the economic circumstances of her family, Lee was sent off to work as a live-in servant when she was just seven, “at the distance of about sixty miles from the place of my birth.”

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Native American on the Lewis and Clark Expedition

On February 28, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson won approval from Congress for a project that would become one of America’s greatest stories of adventure. It would be led by Jefferson’s secretary Meriwether Lewis and Lewis’ friend William Clark. Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone Indian, was the only woman to accompany the 33 members of the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Image: Sacagawea and Jean-Baptiste Monument
Sacagawea Center in Salmon, Idaho

As to the pronunciation and spelling of her name, Captain Clark wrote that the “great object was to make every letter sound” in recording Indian words in their journals. He therefore recorded her name as Sacagawea (Sah-cah’ gah-we-ah), a combination of the Hidatsa words for bird (sacaga) and woman (wea) – always with a ‘g’ in the third syllable.

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Caroline Lee Hentz

Educator and Novelist in Antebellum America

Caroline Lee Hentz (1800–1856) was a nineteenth century novelist and one of the most popular women writers in antebellum America, most noted for her opposition to the abolitionist movement. Her best known novel, The Planter’s Northern Bride, was written in response to the enormously popular anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Early Life
Caroline Lee Whiting was born June 1, 1800 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the youngest of John and Orpah Whiting’s eight children. She was very intelligent and had written a poem, a novel and a tragedy by the age of 12. At age 17, she began teaching at the Lancaster Common School.

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Eliza Leslie

19th century Author of Cooking and Etiquette Books

Writing under the name Miss Leslie, Eliza Leslie (1787–1858) was an American author of popular cookbooks. Her 1837 manual Directions for Cookery: Being a System of the Art, in Its Various Branches, was the most popular book of the 19th century, having gone through fifty printings. Her books on etiquette and domestic management brought her the greatest fame. She also wrote short stories and articles which were published in children’s books and women’s magazines.

Eliza Leslie was born November 15, 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Lydia Baker and Robert Leslie, a watchmaker who was a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She was the oldest of five children.

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Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Writer and Novelist in Antebellum America

Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) was one of nineteenth-century America’s most prolific women writers. She published six novels, two biographies, eight works for children, novellas, over 100 pieces of short prose and other works. Literary critics and historians have recognized her as a primary founder of a distinctly American literature, along with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Sedgwick’s close friend, William Cullen Bryant.

Image: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, c. 1850
Charcoal and chalk on paper by Seth Wells Cheney
Courtesy Lenox Library Association

Catharine Maria Sedgwick, ninth child of Judge Theodore Sedgwick and Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, was born December 28, 1789 at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the house which her father had built four years before. While Catharine loved and respected her mother, Pamela Sedgwick suffered repeated periods of mental illness and does not seem to have been close to her daughter.

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Frances Wright

Abolitionist, Writer and Social Reformer

Frances Wright (1795–1852) was a Scottish-born lecturer, writer, feminist, abolitionist and social reformer who became a U.S. citizen in 1825. That year she founded the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee as a Utopian community to prepare slaves for emancipation, but it lasted only three years. Her Views of Society and Manners in America (1821) brought her the most attention as a critique of the new nation.

Frances Wright was born September 6, 1795, one of three children born in Dundee, Scotland to Camilla Campbell and James Wright, a wealthy linen manufacturer and political radical. Both of her parents died young, and Fanny (as she was called as a child) was orphaned at the age of three, but left with a substantial inheritance.

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Sarah Pierce

Founder of Litchfield Female Academy

Sarah Pierce was the founder of one the earliest schools for girls, the Litchfield Female Academy in her home in Litchfield, Connecticut. This was one of a small group of early schools that played a critical role in shaping educational and economic opportunities for women in the United States. Through her innovative curriculum, Pierce transformed the lives of the more than 3,000 women who attended the school.

Sarah Pierce was born June 26, 1767, the fifth child and fourth daughter of Litchfield farmer and potter John Pierce and Mary Paterson Pierce. Sarah’s mother died in 1770 and two years later her father remarried and had three more children.

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Hannah Foster

Novelist and Journalist in the New Nation

Hannah Foster (1758–1840) was an early American novelist. Her novel, The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton, was published anonymously in 1797 – as written by A Lady of Massachusetts. Not only was it the first novel written by a native-born American woman, in its depiction of an intelligent and strong-willed heroine, the novel transcends many of the conventions of its time and place. It is an epistolary novel in which the plot is revealed in letters between friends and confidants.

Hannah Webster was born on September 10, 1758 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her childhood and adolescence are largely undocumented. She was sent to boarding school for several years after her mother died in 1762. The literary allusions and historical facts contained in her work indicate an outstanding education.

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