Sophia Smith, born in Hatfield, Massachusetts in 1796, was one of seven children of a prosperous and frugal New England farmer. As a young girl, Sophia strove to achieve the type of education generally closed to women in the early nineteenth century. She attended a local school and, for one term, an academy in Hartford, Connecticut. She then continued her education informally, reading widely throughout her life. Deaf by the age of forty, Sophia spent most of her time at home and involved with her church. By 1861, at the age of sixty-five, Sophia was the last of her immediate family. With careful management and wise investments, her brothers and uncles had increased the family wealth to a small fortune. Determined to do something meaningful with her money, Sophia consulted her pastor and others. Eventually, she decided to endow a woman’s college, to be located in Northampton, Massachusetts. The college, she hoped, would provide the highest quality undergraduate education for young women – equal to that provided at the time for young men – thus enabling women to develop their intellects and talents and to participate effectively and fully in all areas of American society.
Upon her death in 1870, Sophia’s bequest of nearly $400,000 became the foundation for the establishment of Smith College, which was chartered in 1871 and then opened its doors in 1875 with 14 students. Since its humble beginnings in 1871, tens of thousands of women from around the world have attended Smith College. They have gone on to serve as leaders in their communities and their nations. Sophia Smith truly achieved her goal: to establish an institution of higher education for women that would impart an education by which women could “incalculably” enlarge “their power for good” by increasing their role in society and the economy and working to reform “the evils of society . . . as teachers, as writers, as mothers, [and] as members of society.”