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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Hannah Lyman: The Lady’s Principles

According to President Raymond’s eldest daughter, “there was no office, perhaps, to which [the president] attached more importance than that of the Lady Principal, on account of the intimate relation she must hold to the students, and her influence in the shaping of character.” Such high expectations presented a massive undertaking for Hannah Lyman, the first Lady Principal of Vassar College, but there was never any doubting her ability. The only thought troubling Raymond was whether or not the noblewoman, 49 at the opening of the college, could adjust to the liberal spirit of the institution.

During an early correspondence with Lyman, before the opening of the college in 1865, President Raymond shared his reservations:

My chief doubt, I will be frank to say, grows out of the very completeness of your maturity. The transplantation of full-grown trees is proverbially perilous, and to be cautiously undertaken just in the proportion to the perfection and beauty of the existing growth…. If I could find your other self in a younger person, a twin sister (to be Irish) ten years your junior, my doubts would all be resolved.

President Raymond was verging on an important issue: could an established woman such as Miss Lyman really adjust to the radical aims of Vassar? Though she served for several years at the head of girls’ seminaries, none of them matched the progressive goals of the college – in the words of Milo Jewett, first president of the college, Vassar should aspire to be “what Harvard and Yale are to young men.” Such a drastic view on women’s education, even to a former principal, may have seemed too bold. Luckily for Raymond, Lyman was in total accord with the school’s intellectual vigor: “I am glad to see that the college is to be a step in advance of other schools. It will then gather to us the best female talent in the land…” With equal zest, however, she added: “…it will probably be avoided by fashionable triflers.”

As laid down in the Laws and Regulations of Vassar College, I have spoken to the assembled students as follows:

Twice on Saturday(s) from 8 to 8:30 AM
December 8 on “Vulgarity” 30 min.
Jan 21 on Manners 30 min.

After evening prayers,

Oct 18 On Observed Proprieties 15 min.
Dec 14 On Inexpensive Shoes 5 min.
Total: 1 h 35 min.

On Modesty in Gym Costume 15 min.
Time devoted to these subjects: 1 h 35 min.

These familiar talks on moral subjects, founded on the Bible, have been during the same period as follows:

Oct 16, 23, On Selfishness 40 min.
Oct 30, Nov 1, Earnestness 40
Nov 6, 8, On Truth in Conversation 40
Nov 13, 15, Reverence 40
Nov 22, On Labor for Others 20
Dec 11, 13, On Consideration 40

Time Given to these subjects 3.40
Total 5 h 15 min.

An Excerpt from Lyman’s Annual Report to President Raymond, highlighting her “little talks” with the students

Lyman’s battle to “stem the torrent of frivolity and fashion,” as she described it to one parent, is well documented. “Vassar College should not become a hotbed for extravagance in dress,” she warned parents in a letter home. Though stringently opposed to lavish clothing, she always maintained proper dress, recounted Francis Wood, chronicler of early Vassar history. She was “very particular,” Wood recalled, “insisting on change for supper, as if going out for the evening. No one was allowed to wear the same costume all day.” A testament to her commitment in the matter is captured in this anecdote from Wood:

A heavy black walnut table – such as was placed in every student parlor – stood in Miss Lyman’s bedroom, with steps beside it, which Winnie, the maid, assisted each student to mount. Then, sitting in her arm-chair near, Miss Lyman criticized the slowly revolving figure on the table, and any slight alteration desirable to make, the maid in waiting was ready to do.

Lyman’s regulations did not merely apply to the students, on occasion her rules applied to colleagues as well. Enforcing these rules on peers, however, proved more difficult:

Now and then her edicts had no force, as when she gave out that no one must go on the grounds after sunset without wearing a wrap. To the general delight, that same summer evening saw Mrs. Raymond guitless of shawl, strolling around the flower garden with the President, both barehanded, so afterwards we pursued our way as we pleased.

Though Lyman’s views may have seemed narrow, she always had the students’ best interest in mind. When it was revealed that Benson Lossing, Vassar Trustee, and chronicler, was going to include sketches of students’ dress in his collection, she sent him an urgent message: “any sketch inserted in your book as characteristic of the College, which should be suggestive of the ‘fashion-plates’ of the day, would, I think, do our students great injustice.” In these shining moments, she proved herself a very capable leader to Vassar students: “…dress should not be a prominent thought in connection with [Matthew Vassar’s] beloved institution. In a history of Harvard or Yale, such illustrations would be deemed out of place. Why should not Vassar stand at the same level?”

It was this same moral conviction perhaps that caused friction between the Lady Principal and her colleagues. One such instance forced President Raymond to consider the relevance of dancing in the young ladies’ lives; it was a question he had never thought to ask, as he had never admittedly “lived amongst a dancing people.” Like fashion, she believed it to be unnecessary, an unchristian hazard for the impressionable youth of the college. Raymond, a certified reverend, was so troubled by Lyman’s opinions he wrote her a letter specifically addressing the issue on May 11th, 1865:

On the subject of dancing suffice it now to say that the college is wholly uncommitted…you need not fear that anything would ever be done there bearing on the religious welfare of the students without your full approval…. My doctrine on the whole subject is just your doctrine, I am sure, because it is just [the apostle] Paul’s… is that not good theology?

Raymond, flustered by Lyman’s narrowness, questioned the validity of her argument with this pointed remark:

I am a believer in Christian liberty, and in the divinity of the beautiful, and in the desirableness of an emancipation of the truth and spirit of Christ, in His people, from all the trammels of a narrow theology and a harsh and stern morality. There, I have told the worst and I feel better.

Despite their disagreements, both remained cordial throughout. Raymond defused the situation by stating he was “altogether in sympathy with [her] desire to have Christ’s ‘idea’ incorporated into [their] system.” Since neither could agree on a resolution, the fate of dance was ultimately left open, to be decided at another time. Luckily for students, the issue was never revisited.

The Lady Principal was required to submit a progress report to the President annually. Throughout these semi-formal letters, Lyman’s peculiar scruples sporadically appear. In her 1866 report, she criticized the dining accommodations provided by the college:

The short supply and improper selection of food during the first months had the effect of exalting eating into a prominent theme of conversation and of perpetuating a habit I had hoped measurably to eradicate – of receiving ‘boxes from home.’

The boxes she mentioned were presumably care packages from parents. Lyman’s fear was that the packages would invite undesirable luxury into the students’ lives. She continued:

The closely packed dining room was much to be regretted. The confusion and consequent fatigue were such that some students of delicate organization would remain away from table rather than endure it, while the manners of the young ladies could not be expected to improve under such circumstances.

The girls’ “delicate organization” was a frequent concern of the Lady Principal. Theories of popular science that pervaded her society depicted the average female as frail, with a high susceptibility to illness. Lyman was very much influenced by these theories. According to Elizabeth Daniels, Vassar Historian, Lyman was notorious for excusing students from class who claimed they were ill. Her concern for the students’ physical welfare undoubtedly saved many of them from the trouble of test taking.

While the occasional excusal from classwork may have been welcome, Lyman’s other parietal regulations were not as appreciated. Special permission had to be obtained from Lyman by the students for leaving their rooms during study hours, or going out of the building after dark. According to Wood, “A girl was not even allowed to go to church alone [without a chaperone] if under age (i.e.:20.)” The only places the girls were allowed to venture after dark were the gymnasium and observatory, and even these trips were contested by Lyman.

She is very kind to me, but had we lived in the colonial days of Massachusetts, and she had been a power, she would have burned me at the stake for heresy.

Maria Mitchell on the Lady Principal

The Lady Principal’s beliefs were never more apparent than in contrast with Maria Mitchell, an eminently liberal member of the original faculty. Conflict arose between the two ladies over the students’ right to visit the observatory after dark. While the decision would undermine Lyman’s authority, it seemed ludicrous not to allow astronomy students to observe the night skies. Though the two could not have been more different, they still worked amicably together. In an amusingly tentative statement, Mitchell wrote: “Miss [Lyman] is a bigot, but a very sincere one.” They were certainly affable, but their views made them strangely alien to each other. In this very revealing quote, Mitchell summarily explains their dynamic: “She is very kind to me, but had we lived in the colonial days of Massachusetts, and she had been a power, she would have burned me at the stake for heresy.”

As Lyman grew older, she became more lax in her ideas about the college. Wood discovered that Maria Mitchell had actually “acknowledged to one of her nieces that both she and Miss Lyman had changed their views and had come to think more alike during their first four years together.” Yet even before Lyman’s gradual harmony with the institution’s ideas, she garnered the respect of even her most vocal detractors. One student wrote of Lyman in February 1871, “Even the girls who disliked [her] always showed admiration for her ability.” Lyman’s ability to gather the universal esteem of the college is revealed in Maria Mitchell’s personal records. A few days before the college commenced, Lyman and Mitchell received the students from the first class. They spent the day welcoming the students and reassuring parents. The next day Mitchell recalls of the aging Lady Principal, “This morning Miss Lyman’s voice was gone. She must have seen five hundred people yesterday.” Her principles notwithstanding, Lyman’s dedication to the college and its advancement was irrefutable.

At the time of her passing in February 1871, the Springfield Republican captured the essence of Lyman’s lasting legacy at the college:

To say that she filled that difficult post to the perfect satisfaction of all whom she was thus connected would be to say that she was more than human, for in such an extensive institution, there were, of course, great diversities of opinions and tastes; but we think it may be safely said that few ever secured more genuine and hearty respect, admiration and love.

Related Articles


Earliest Years at Vassar, Wood, Frances A.
“Hannah Willard Lyman Biographical File 1-2 (1816–1871,)” Special Collections
“Lady Principal Guidelines,” Folder 3.79 Special Collections
“Lady Principal Reports 1865-69” Folder 3.80 Special Collections
Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journeys and Letters Albers, Henry ed.

SDC 2006