Emily Dickinson’s Schooling: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

“[O]n the whole, there is an ease & grace a desire to make one another happy, which delights & at the same time, surprises me very much.” 
– Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, South Hadley, November 6, 1874 

After completing her schooling at Amherst Academy, Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-1848. Founded ten years before, the seminary was located eleven miles south of Amherst in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The school offered a curriculum that was based on a college course of study and was among the most rigorous academic institutions a young woman could attend at the time.

Dickinson was sixteen when she entered the seminary, younger than most of the other 234 students. Students who attended came primarily from New England but also from Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and the Cherokee Indian Nation. The poet shared a room with her cousin, Emily Norcross, who graduated at the close of the 1848 year.

An artist's rendering of Mount Holyoke Women's seminary

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary ca. 1845. Print by Currier and Ives, based on a drawing by Persis Thurston, graduate of Mount Holyoke

Dickinson took examinations during her first week at the seminary and scores placed her in the first of three academic levels. By midterm, she was promoted to the middle class. Dickinson remarked that Mary Lyon, the seminary’s founder and principal, was “raising her standard of scholarship a good deal…& on account of that she makes the examinations more severe than usual” (L18).

Mount Holyoke’s curriculum reflected Lyon’s interest in science (she was a chemist by training) and courses included botany, natural history and astronomy. Early in her time at the seminary, Dickinson reported to her brother, Austin, that she was “all engrossed in the history of Sulphuric Acid!!!!!” (L22). Other courses included English grammar, Latin, history, music, algebra, philosophy and logic. Mount Holyoke’s curriculum was innovative with its emphasis on individual discovery through laboratory science and its insistence that students engage in physical exercise – Dickinson mentions practicing calisthenics. All students also were required to help maintain the seminary by participating in some form of domestic work. Dickinson’s job was to carry, wash and dry knives at every meal table “morning & noon & night” (L18).

Like most other educational institutions at the time, Mount Holyoke also believed that students’ moral and religious lives were part of its responsibility and conducted revivals that encouraged students to profess their faith. Students were organized into one of three groups: those who professed, those who hoped to and those who were without hope. Dickinson was among eighty without hope when she entered and was among twenty-nine who remained so by the end of the year. She wrote her friend Abiah Root, “There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important & serious a subject” (L20).

Dickinson did not return to the seminary after her first year, a decision that has sparked considerable scholarly speculation. Some believe the poet suffered from religious oppression at the school; others contend the curriculum was not challenging. Still others argue that she was too homesick to continue to live apart from her family. One possibility that bears noting is that most young women did not return to the seminary for a second or third year. Societal attitudes at the time maintained that women did not need higher education since their primary adult responsibilities would center on domestic life. Less than 20 percent of the students during Dickinson’s year returned to the seminary for additional study. Many of them married missionaries or became teachers in the United States, as did the poet’s cousin, or in schools abroad established by the American Board of Missions. Whatever the reason Dickinson chose to leave Mount Holyoke, the seminary and its formidable leader, Mary Lyon, left the poet with an enduring legacy: the belief that women were capable of and entitled to a life of the mind.

Further Reading:

Christopher Benfey, “Emily Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke.” Five Colleges, Five Histories. Ed. Ronald Story. Amherst: Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield, 1992. 29-48.

Journal Letter 1847-1848. Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. Mount Holyoke College. South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Sydney McLean, “Emily Dickinson at Mount Holyoke.” New England Quarterly 7 (1934) 25-42.

Anna Mary Wells. “Emily Dickinson, 1849.” Dickinson Studies 73. (1990): 23-30.