Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870)

"But reason and religion teach that we too are primary existences...the companions, not the satellites of men,...Education should seek to bring its subject to the perfection of their moral, intellectual, and physical nature ... in order that they may be the means of the greatest possible happiness of which they are capable, both as to what they enjoy and what they communicate." - Emma Willard

Emma Willard was a leader in women's education. She opened Troy Female Seminary, the first school for girls offering them an education equal to -- and perhaps better than -- that received by young men.

Emma Hart was born on February 23, 1787 in Berlin, Connecticut. Her father, Samuel Hart, owned a prosperous farm and was a liberal thinker. He recognized Emma's natural abilities and encouraged her in her studies. Samuel Hart included his daughter in conversations about topics that were typically only discussed among men, such as philosophy and politics. Although her father was supportive, the school system was not: the era offered only a limited amount of education to girls. At age 12, she began teaching herself geometry. At age 15, she entered Berlin Academy and within a few years, began teaching there. After a short period of teaching at Westfield, Massachusetts, Miss Hart was offered the position of principal at the women's academy in Middlebury, Vermont in 1807.

In 1809, she married the town physician, Dr. John Willard, a widower with four young children. Although he supported her passion for learning, it was not acceptable for married women to be teachers. She left her career and bore a child -- but while rearing these five children, Willard continued her education by studying the college books of a male relative who boarded with the family. No colleges anywhere in the world admitted women in the early 1800s, and as Willard studied these college textbooks, she became aware of what women were missing.

In 1812, the bank at which her husband was a director was robbed. No insurance systems yet existed, and the family was bankrupt. Nor was Dr. Willard's practice as a physician as reliable source of income as it would be today: again because insurance did not yet exist, medical practices, too, often were financially unstable. Because the family needed income, Willard opened a school in her Middlebury home. Its beginning was sufficiently rocky that the family moved on to Waterford, New York, and finally to Troy, New York. It was there that Emma Willard would become famous.

She introduced her students to subjects such as mathematics that were not regularly taught to young women, yet she was careful not to imply that women or women's education should be equal to men's, worrying that her ideas would be immediately dismissed. As she taught, though, her feminism grew, and Dr. Willard's influence in the household faded to the point of irrelevance.

In 1819, just seven years after beginning her career as an educational administrator, Willard took the unconventional move of expressing her ideas about expanding women's education to the New York legislature, which met in the capitol of Albany, across the Hudson River from Troy. Because women did not speak in public, she used the form of a written proposal, a paper whose abbreviated title is "A Plan for Improving Female Education." Willard also published the plan and sent copies to all who supported her ideas, including past presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as well as James Monroe, who became president in 1821.

Most of New York's legislators were shocked at her ideas, however, and especially objected to teaching anatomy to women. She did, however, catch the attention of Governor DeWitt Clinton and especially of men in the industrial town of Troy. The town raised taxes to endow the school with $4,000, and Troy Female Seminary opened in September of 1821. In the first year, 90 girls enrolled, even though the school was quite expensive, costing $200 annually for room, board, and tuition. At this price, only the wealthiest of families could afford to send their daughters, but the school nonetheless showed how profoundly young women wanted a sound education. The school attracted the daughters of affluent families from all over the nation, and their spending eventually repaid the town's investment. It would not be until 1837, when Mary Lyon opened Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts, that middle-class girls could afford this sort of education.

Emma Willard's husband died in 1825, just four years after the school began, and continued to run it. The curriculum at Troy Seminary was even more advanced than some boys' academies, including subjects like astronomy, botany, physiology, and geology. Although Willard was forward thinking in many ways, she still believed that women should center their lives in the home or become teachers. Therefore, she also offered classes that would fall into the category of home economics by today's standards. Willard had a firm grasp on what she wanted her students to learn and even wrote some of the textbooks -- most covering the topics of history and geography. Her books received excellent reviews and proved to be quite profitable.

In 1830, Willard took a trip around Europe, where she was surprised at the inferior schools for women. She published a book, Journal and Letters from France and Great Britain (1833), and used the proceeds to fund a female seminary in Greece. In 1838, at age 51, Willard left Troy Female Seminary in the hands of her son and daughter-in-law, but remained active in the arena of women's education. She continued to publish articles on education, textbooks, and poems. Willard married again in 1839 and moved with her husband, Christopher Yates, to Boston. However, the marriage did not last long. Yates was only interested in Willard's money and was abusive. Retaining the name by which she had become famous, Willard left Yates after just nine months and joined her sister in her native town of Berlin, Connecticut. She was granted a divorce in 1843. Willard soon was elected superintendent of public schools in Kensington.

Although her views on women's education proved to be quite progressive, Willard remained conservative on suffrage and slavery. During the time of the Civil War, Willard's writings suggested a compromise to allow slaves to work as indentured servants to earn passage to the newly created African nation of Liberia. She also refused to join her former student Elizabeth Cady Stanton in a campaign for suffrage, and one of her arguments for female teachers was that they could be paid less than men.

Emma Willard died in 1870, leaving behind her the legacy of Troy Seminary, which was renamed The Emma Willard School on its 25th anniversary. Unlike Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke, it never became a college, but continues to flourish today as a boarding prep school for girls on a beautiful campus in Troy, New York. Emma Willard's 1819 work on behalf of female education remains one of the founding documents of American women's history.

References and Further Reading:

  • Picture: Portrait of Emma Hart Willard, from John Lord, The Life of Emma Willard, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873.
  • Lord, John. The Life of Emma Willard. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1873.
  • Lutz, Alma. Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy. Houghton Mifflin, 1929; reprinted by Beacon Press, 1964.
  • Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History: An A-Z of People, Issues, Organizations, and Events. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994.
  • Willard, Emma Hart. An Address to the Public. Middlebury, VT.: J. W. Copeland, 1819.
  • Woody, Thomas. A History of Women's Education in the United States. New York, NY: The Science Press, 1929.