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Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

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I recently attended meetings and award events at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Virginia. As always happens when I am on a college campus, I was struck by the importance and value of education. At the end of the colonial period in the U.S., 40 percent of white women and 80 percent of white men were literate. Women needed to take matters into their own hands in order to ensure women were educated, and they did! Let's learn about some of the women who led the fight for education -- who made sure we all know those three R's -- reading, writing, and arithmetic.

A woman who was motivated to end the difference between the education that boys received and the education that girls received in the early 1800s, Emma Willard determined that she would found an endowed school that would provide girls with an equivalent education as that provided to boys. She found a population willing to help fund such a school in Troy, New York. Originally called the Troy Female Seminary, Willard's school was renamed the Emma Willard School after her death and is still in existence today. One of its most famous alumnae was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who helped organize the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of women's rights and the home of the National Women's Hall of Fame. Emma Willard has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

The founder of Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon established the model for institutions of higher education for women. At a time when women did not speak in public, Mary Lyon went out and asked people for money. She was determined to establish an institution that, like the Troy Female Seminary, would offer an education to women that was equivalent to the education offered to men. She ensured that her institution was endowed, that its student body crossed socioeconomic lines and was inclusive, and that a curriculum was offered that would prepare women for more than homemaking and raising a family. The first of the seven sisters, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was established in 1837 in South Hadley, Massachusetts; it would become Mount Holyoke College in 1893. Lyon's saying has been repeated and embraced by generations of Mount Holyoke students: "Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do." Mary Lyon has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Like Emma Willard and Mary Lyon, Mary McLeod Bethune wanted to establish a school, and she did. In 1904, with $1.50, Bethune began a school with five pupils in Dayton Beach, Florida. Originally called the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, the school later expanded to become a high school, then a college and today it is Bethune-Cookman University. Bethune was active in many areas, in addition to education. She advised several Presidents of the United States, was a member of the "Black cabinet," and worked to end discrimination and increase opportunities for African Americans. The founder of the National Council of Negro Women (a civil rights organization), Mary McLeod Bethune has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Unlike Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, and Mary McLeod Bethune, Native American Patricia Locke had to fight to ensure that her culture and language could be taught in schools. A MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Locke helped establish 17 tribally run Lakota Sioux colleges, worked to change federal law, and was instrumental in the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which guaranteed Native Americans the right to freely practice their religion. Locke, who was educated at the University of California at Los Angeles, spent more than 40 years as a preserver of Native American languages, cultures and spiritual traditions. An educator, she developed curriculum and served as an instructor. In addition, she lectured at many universities. After she accepted the Baha'i, faith, Locke became the first Native American woman to be elected to an office of that organization's National Spiritual Assembly (1993). Patricia Locke has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

These trailblazing educators are among the more than 850 women profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We salute their passion, determination, and persistence, and thank them for helping to make education available for all.