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Mary Lyon's Domestic Work System

Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke

College lore has it that through the domestic work system, Mary Lyon kept fees low. Students cleaned, cooked, and generally took the place of servants, and as a result more middle class families could afford to send their children to Mount Holyoke. But according to her own writing, Mary Lyon also kept servants out of Mount Holyoke to free her middle and upper class students from the will of servants, whom she called "often unfaithful, unreasonable, and dissatisfied."

Lyon’s writing speaks to a common fear that the privileged classes had of the power their servants held over them. Although servants' work, particularly women servants’ work, was devalued, they were necessary to keep middle and upper class households running. Mary Lyon hoped to liberate the privileged classes from their dependence on the lower class.

Who Did the Work at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary?

In college lore, Mary Woolley abolished the domestic work system and ushered in a new era at the school. It was then that housekeepers and cooks took over what had previously been students’ work. In fact, servants had worked on campus since the very early days of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Mary Lyon’s vision only lasted 37 years. In 1874, the school trustees voted to hire more servants in order to spare the “young ladies” from the bulk of the “severe and coarse domestic labor” required to keep the seminary running. Though seminary students continued to work on campus, the “drudge work” was performed by hired help. The myth that students did all of the work at Mount Holyoke erases the historical presence of servants at Mount Holyoke and perpetuates the idea of the invisible servant.

Renee Pelletier, Class of 2019

Mary Lyon's Domestic Work System