Willard, Emma (Hart)

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WILLARD, Emma (Hart)

Born 23 February 1787, Berlin, Connecticut; died 15 April 1870, Troy, New York

Daughter of Samuel and Lydia Hinsdale Hart; married John Willard, 1809 (died 1825); Christopher Yates, 1838; children: one son

Emma Willard was the 16th of her father's 17 children, the ninth born to his second wife. Books were the center of life on the Hart family farm. Captain Hart had served in the Revolution, and in addition to Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, the family savored stories of Washington and Lafayette.

Willard attended the Berlin Academy (where within two years she was teaching younger children), but she was extensively self-taught. She took advantage of the medical books of her husband—a fifty-year-old physician and politician who had four children from two previous marriages—and the books of his nephew—a student at Middlebury College who lived in their home in Vermont. Willard had been preceptress of a school in Middlebury before her marriage, and in 1814—to aid family finances—she opened the Middlebury Female Seminary, where she began to introduce "higher subjects," such as mathematics, history, and languages, in addition to the "ornamental" subjects usually deemed proper for women.

Willard realized that private means were too limited to provide suitable housing, adequate libraries, and the necessary apparatus for quality education. She presented New York governor DeWitt Clinton with her Plan for Improving Female Education (1819), published at her own expense and sent to prominent men throughout the country. It received enthusiastic response from all quarters, but the legislature voted no funds. In 1821, however, the Troy, New York, Common Council voted to raise $4,000 for female education. Five years before the first public high schools for girls opened in New York (and closed shortly thereafter) and 16 years before Mary Lyon founded the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Willard was offering women a serious course of study equivalent to the best men's high schools and sometimes superior to their college work.

She was supported in her work by her husband (until his death in 1825), her sister, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, and later by her one son and his wife. Her brief second marriage (to a man who turned out to be a gambler and fortune hunter) was not successful, but Willard had had the foresight to draw up an unusual prenuptial financial agreement protecting her property, income, and school.

The work that established Willard's reputation is her Plan for Improving Female Education. Incisive as any lawyer's brief, it argues that the current system of privately financed education was inadequate because most proprietors saw schools only as money-making ventures and because many schools, particularly girls' schools, had no entrance requirements, few regulations, and a shallow curriculum. She declares that education "should seek to bring its subjects to the perfection of their moral, intellectual, and physical nature, in order that they may be of the greatest possible use to themselves and others," and concludes by noting that since women give society its moral tone, the country would benefit from quality female education. In 1833 Willard expanded these ideas in a series of lectures published as The Advancement of Female Education to promote a female seminary in Greece.

Even while running the seminary herself, Willard found time to write several textbooks, which made her financially independent. The first is A System of Universal Geography (1822), written with William Channing Woodbridge. Older texts had been written as if London were the center of the world and emphasized rote learning. Willard encourages students to study and draw maps and to use a globe. She describes the climate, customs, and history of different countries.

Willard is best known for her history texts. Republic of America (1828) begins with a chronological table dividing American history into 10 epochs and concludes with the "political scriptures" she learned as a child. Lafayette endorsed her account of the Revolution, and Daniel Webster wrote, "I keep it near me as book of reference, accurate in facts and dates." It was popular for both the student and the general reader.

Her Episcopal faith gave the books a popular moral tone. A System of Universal History in Perspective (1837) details the "virtues which exalt nations and the vices which destroy them." In 1844 she published Temple of Time, the first in a series of books in which she charted world history as a multistoried temple, in which each floor is held up by groups of 10 pillars on which are engraved the names of the principal sovereigns of each century. Each floor contains various groupings of nations and the roof displays the names of heroes. Although these books may appear stilted and moralistic today, they were hailed as educationally innovative, making history exciting in their time.

In 1820, at a time when the great popularity of millennial speculation in the United States was just beginning, Willard researched biblical prophecies to write Universal Peace, to Be Introduced by a Confederacy of Nations Meeting at Jerusalem; 54 years later, she published an expanded version. Her commitment to peace was such that during the Civil War she wrote two works about how slavery might be modified in order to satisfy both sides. She did not press the plan, however, after her nephew, a state Supreme Court judge, told her the time for such suggestions was long past.

Willard wrote many poems, but only "The Ocean Hymn; or, Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep," written in 1831 on the return voyage from a trip in Europe, became well known. Another of Willard's interests was science. Although not as well known in the field as was her sister Almira, she did argue in two works of the 1840s that there is a connection between respiration and the circulation of the blood. Although she was made a member of the Association for the Advancement of Science, she was somewhat miffed when the idea was called the "American theory" rather than the "Willardian."

Willard never participated in women's rights activities, but she opposed Almira's Anti-Woman Suffrage Society. She wrote to Celia Burr Burleigh in support of her career as a feminist lecturer: "After all, you have only entered now upon a work that I took up more than half a century ago—pleading the cause of my sex. I did it in my way, you are doing it in yours, and as I have reason to believe that God blessed me in my efforts, I pray that he will bless you in yours."

Other Works:

Geography for Beginners; or, The Instructor's Assistant (1826). Journal and Letters from France and Great Britain (1833). Chronographer of Ancient History (1846). Chronographer of English History (1846). Historic Guide to the Temple of Time (1846). A Treatise on the Motive Powers which Produce the Circulation of the Blood (1846). Respiration and Its Effects, Particularly as Respects Asiatic Cholera (1849). Last Leaves of American History (1849 enlarged edition, Late American History: Containing a Full Account of the Courage, Conduct, and Success of John C. Fremont, 1856). Astronomy; or, Astronomical Geography (1853). Morals for the Young; or, Good Principles Instilling Wisdom (1857). Appeal to South Carolina (1860). Via Media (1862).


Lord, J., The Life of Emma Willard (1873). Lutz, A., Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy (1929; rev. ed., Emma Willard: Pioneer Educator of American Women, 1964). Woody, T., A History of Women's Education in the U.S. (1929).

Reference works:

NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).


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