Willard, Emma Hart (1787-1870)

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Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870)


Founder of the troy female seminary

Turning Point. Born in Berlin, Connecticut, in February 1787, Emma was the sixteenth of seventeen children. Her ancestors were among the most prominent settlers of New England, and her father had served as a militia captain in the Revolutionary War as well as in the state General Assembly. Emma attended a local district school, but much of her learning came at home. Reading aloud with her parents, she became a voracious reader of books that she borrowed from a nearby village library. At fifteen she began studying at the Berlin Academy under the tutelage of Thomas Miner, a graduate of Yale and the academys founder. It was a turning point in her life. No better instruction was given to girls in any school, at that time in the country, she recalled years later. Inspired and intellectually stimulated by Miners lectures, Willard began teaching in the village school in 1804 at the age of seventeen. The experiences at the Berlin Academy and the village school sparked in her a lifelong passion for learning and teaching. From 1804 until the publication of her famous Plan for Improving Female Education (1819) she alternated periods of teaching and extending her own education.

Improving Female Education. In Willards Plan for Improving Female Education, addressed to the New York legislature, she argued (albeit unsuccessfully) that states had an obligation to charter and finance colleges for women as well as men. In doing so she was contradicting the statement made the previous year by Thomas Jefferson in which he stated that female education should concentrate on ornaments and the amusements of life. Explained Jefferson, These, for a female, are dancing, drawing, and music. Willard told the legislature that the education of women has been too exclusively directed to fit them for displaying to advantage the charms of youth and beauty. The problem, she articulated, was that the taste of men has been made into a standard for the formation of the female character. Reason and religion teach us, she said, that we too are primary existences not the satellites of men. Astute enough to understand the temper of the times, she explained to the male legislators that educated mothers would raise citizens of better character. Properly educated female teachers, she hastened to add, would be both more virtuous and less expensive than male instructors. Always careful to appeal to mens self-interests, Willard asked: Who knows how great and good a race of men may yet arise from the forming hands of mothers, enlightened by the bounty of their beloved country?

Troy Female Seminary. While bold enough to seek financial assistance for the formation of an educational institution for women, Willard was aware that it was foolhardy to propose a college for women, given contemporary views about women. Instead she coined the termfema/e seminary even though she had every intention of making such an institution operate on the same level as mens colleges. Over the next two years Willard embarked on a personal crusade for womens education, and after several unsuccessful attempts to raise the necessary finances, in 1821 she was able to establish the Troy (New York) Female Seminary. The Seminary became one of the first institutions for the education of girls and the first teacher-training institution in the nation. Willard believed that young women should and could learn academic subjects typically reserved for men, so the curriculum at the Troy Female Seminary included a full range of classes from Latin to geography. At its opening session in 1821 ninety young women enrolled, a number that grew every year that Willard served as teacher and administrator. She helped to design the buildings, selected or wrote the textbooks, and organized the curriculum. As the years passed, she added more advanced subjects in an effort to keep the institutions course of study as rigorous as that of any male college in the country. Willard spent most of her life at the Troy Female Seminary, and forty years after her death the trustees honored her memory by renaming the institution the Emma Willard School.

Pioneer. In addition to founding the Troy Female Seminary, Willard was an accomplished teacher in her own right, the author of textbooks on geography and history, an early supporter of teacher education, and an unflagging advocate of common schools. She was a pioneer in challenging popular concepts of the role of women in the new republic. Although she accepted many of the inequalities of her eras highly patriarchal society, she did much to draw attention to the serious deficiencies in the education of girls. The ideas she expressed throughout her life provided thousands of women with the necessary leverage for increasing both their level of formal education and their opportunities as teachers.


Alma Lutz, Emma Willard: Pioneer Educator of American Women (Boston: Beacon, 1964);

Maxine Schwartz Seller, ed., Women Educators in the United States, 18201993 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).

Emma Hart Willard

views updated Jun 11 2018

Emma Hart Willard

The American educator and author Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870) was a leader in the early movement for women's education and the founder of the Troy Female Seminary.

Emma Hart was born in Berlin, Conn., on Feb. 23, 1787. Her early education was in the district school and local academy. When she was 17 she began teaching in the village school while continuing her preparation at women's academies in Hartford.

Miss Hart accepted a position in the Westfield Academy at Middlebury, Vt., in 1807 but interrupted her career to marry John Willard, a physician. With the help of a student at Middlebury College she mastered the college's curriculum but was not allowed to attend classes or win a degree. The experience heightened her awareness of the educational advantages which were denied to women. (Popular opinion and religious tradition held that intensive study would endanger women's health and morals and divert them from their domestic duties.) When, in 1814, she was obliged by financial necessity to open the Middlebury Female Seminary, she taught the higher studies, as an experiment, along with the customary secondary school subjects. The success of the seminary confirmed her conviction that women could survive advanced study without peril.

In 1818 Mrs. Willard sent to Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York An Address to the public: Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a plan for Improving Female Education, a lucid argument supporting women's education and outlining a scheme for a female seminary financed by the state. The proposal failed to persuade the legislature, although it was published and widely praised. Sympathetic citizens in Waterford, N.Y., induced Mrs. Willard to establish a school there, but she moved the enterprise to Troy in 1821, when that community offered greater support. The Troy Female Seminary, following the pattern of the Middlebury experiment, grew in influence and enrollment, its graduates spreading the new gospel of female education. Emma Willard supervised every detail of the school's development, frequently teaching herself a subject in order to introduce it to her students.

For 18 years Mrs. Willard managed the seminary, pausing in 1830 to visit Europe and in 1833 to agitate for women's education in Greece. The sale of her Journal and Letters from France and Great Britain, describing the European voyage, helped to support a female seminary in Athens. Her husband died in 1825, and her second marriage ended in divorce in 1843. But by then she had left the management of the seminary to her son, John Hart Willard, to work with Henry Barnard in advancing the common-school movement in Connecticut. She served briefly as superintendent of the Kensington, Conn., common schools and lectured before teachers' groups, attempting always to recruit women into teaching.

Sometimes drawn into public controversy, Mrs. Willard was never genuinely a part of the feminist movement, but by the example of her life and through the institution she founded at Troy, she was identified with the cause. She died in Troy on April 15, 1870.

Further Reading

Alma Lutz, Emma Willard: Pioneer Educator of American Women (1964), which describes Mrs. Willard's career within the larger context of American social history, is an updating of an earlier volume, comprehensive and well written but inadequately documented. Willystine Goodsell, Pioneers of Women's Education in the United States (1931), contains a short chapter on Mrs. Willard and reprints selections from her writings.

Additional Sources

Lutz, Alma., Emma Willard: daughter of democracy, Washington: Zenger Pub. Co., 1975, 1929.

Lutz, Alma., Emma Willard: pioneer educator of American women, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983, 1964. □

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