Willard, Emma Hart (1787–1870)

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Willard, Emma Hart (1787–1870)

Founder of Troy Seminary, writer of textbooks, and partisan for the common-school movement who advocated female control of women's education with support from public funds and promoted change while urging stability during a boisterous historical era. Born Emma Hart on February 23, 1787, on a farm at Berlin, Connecticut; died on April 15, 1870, at Troy, New York; buried in Oakwood Cemetery overlooking Troy; ninth of ten children of Samuel Hart (a Revolutionary War hero) and Lydia (Hinsdale) Hart (Samuel Hart had seven other children from a previous marriage); older sister of Almira Lincoln Phelps (1793–1884), who also became a distinguished educator; attended the Berlin Academy, Connecticut; attended classes at schools in Hartford, Connecticut; married Dr. John Willard, in 1809 (died 1825); married Christopher Yates (a physician), in 1838 (divorced 1843); children: (first marriage) John Hart Willard (b. 1810).

Attended a district school during "winter sessions"; studied at one of the first academies in Connecticut;began teaching at age 17; opened a boarding school for girls in her home (1814); presented plan for a female seminary to New York State Legislature (1819); opened Troy Seminary (1821); founded the Willard Association for the Mutual Improvement of Female Teachers (1837); wrote history textbooks; attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish seminaries for teachers in Greece; married Christopher Yates (1838); granted a divorce by the Connecticut Legislature (1843); elected superintendent of the common schools in Kensington, Connecticut (1840); toured extensively as a speaker for teachers' institutes (1845–46).

Selected writings:

A Plan for Improving Female Education (rep. of 2nd ed. of 1819 by VT: Middlebury College, 1918); Advancement of Female Education: Or, a series of Addresses in Favor of Establishing at Athens, In Greece, A French Seminary, Especially Designed to Instruct Female Teachers (Norman Tuttle, 1833); History of the United States or Republic of America (NY: White, Gallaher, and Whate, 1830); Morals for the Young or, Good Principles Instilling Wisdom (NY: A.S. Barnes, 1857); "Political Position of Women-Letter to Dupont DeL'eure," in American Literary Magazine (April 1848).

Educators of the late 18th and early 19th centuries justified the need for "feminine schooling" on the basis of women's roles as wives, mothers, and teachers, and carefully constructed a separate, higher educational system aimed at training females. Sensing in this development opportunities for advancement, women of sensitivity, intelligence, and ambition, such as Emma Hart Willard (as well as Mary Lyon and Catharine Beecher ), controlled the movement by successfully joining the needs of their society, their gender, and themselves to enhance female social authority and create public spaces wherein women educators could dominate. The ultimate consequences of their action were subversion of the status quo, promotion of feminism, and promotion of truly equal institutions of higher education for women. Women educators such as Willard, without openly rebelling against a culture determined to teach women to "know their place," developed significant political strategies for enlarging and expanding their dominion under the guise of defending society. Studying women such as Willard offers a way to understand how cultural change affected middle-class women in the early republican period because, by successfully founding the Troy Seminary, she arrived early in the seminary movement. Capable, sound, and respected, she advocated female control of women's education with support from public funds. Emma Willard was not the first to propose that it was appropriate to educate women because they were women, but she was one of the most successful in using this idea to expand schooling for middle-class females, thus changing educational opportunities for women within the highly structured roles allocated to them.

In a letter to a friend in 1818, Emma Willard gave her reason for wanting to develop an educational institution for women: "My neighborhood to Middlebury College made me bitterly feel the disparity in educational facilities between the sexes." Willard's proximity to Middlebury and her interest in what went on there were the results of both marriage and an eager intellect. Born in Berlin, Connecticut, in 1787, she was the sixteenth child of Revolutionary War hero Stephen Hart and ninth child of his second wife Lydia Hinsdale Hart . Emma attended a district school and later studied at one of the first academies in Connecticut. The principal of this academy, Thomas Miner, was a Yale graduate, and Willard later claimed that there was no better instruction for young women at that time in the country.

In 1804, the summer she was 17, Willard began her teaching career. (Women were primarily allowed to attend and teach "public" school in the summertime when men were in the fields.) In the winters, she attended the schools of Misses Patten and Mrs. Royce of New Hartford. At age 20, Willard chose to teach at a private school run by two male graduates of Williams College in Westfield, Massachusetts. After only six months, she resigned and accepted another position at an academy in Middlebury, Vermont. The reasons for this change were never stated but, from this point on, Willard always maintained that women should be in charge of female education, an increasingly popular notion. From 1809 until 1821, Emma, while making her home at Middlebury, developed her concepts of female education and learned the political skills that later enabled her to work with opposing factions for the success of her seminary. In 1809, she married Dr. John Willard, an influential, wealthy man in the community much older than she. While he was away on frequent business trips, Willard read all his medical books plus studied the textbooks their nephew John brought home from his classes at Middlebury College. This was a most important educational experience for Willard since it demonstrated to her satisfaction that women could master the same curriculum as men and gave her what amounted to a college education.

In 1814, severe financial reverses, probably as a result of the disastrous War of 1812, caused the Willards to lose everything except their home. Emma opened a boarding school for girls that was an immediate success. This trauma was in fact fortuitous, since Emma, overeducated for the traditional roles she had been playing, quickly gained confidence in her own ability to initiate, develop, and direct institutions. She wrote to a Reverend Henry Fowler: "When I began my school in Middlebury my leading motive was to relieve my husband from financial difficulties [but] I had the further motive of keeping a better school than those around me."

[History] shows many [countries] whose legislatures have sought to improve their various vegetables … but none whose public councils have made it an object of their deliberations to improve the character of women.

—Emma Hart Willard

Her ambition thus somewhat providentially unleashed, Willard went on to tell Fowler that she had begun to secretly work on a plan to "effect an important change in education by a grade of schools for women higher than any heretofore known." For over a year, not even her husband knew of her idea. After receiving an encouraging letter from De Witt Clinton, governor of New York, in 1818, Willard determined that New York provided the most auspicious setting for her experiment since the state was anxious to surpass New England in progressive reform policies. The original copy of the plan, carefully handwritten by Willard and entitled An Address to the Public: Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education, was read for her to the state legislature in the spring of 1819. Her willingness to go directly to a source of economic and political power demonstrates her understanding of the problems undermining opportunity for women.

Warning the legislators of the consequences of their neglect, Willard catalogued the evils perpetuated by women without "the preservatives of a good education" and advocated the use of seminary graduates as teachers for the republic so that they could perform a useful function and free the men for other important work. Anticipating some justifications and capitalizing on others all ready widely accepted, Willard listed other functions female schooling could perform for society. "Housewifery could be raised to a regular art…. [W]omen would acquire a taste for moral and intellectual pleasures [which would] extend the influence they possess over children." Ending the proposed plan with a perhaps unconscious personal statement, Willard noted that "there are master spirits among women who must have pre-eminence at whatever price." The solution, according to Willard, lay in allowing women to "govern and improve the seminaries for their sex."

Although the plan was formally approved by the New York Legislature, the request for funds was denied. Bitterly disappointed by what seemed to her a personal rejection, Willard made extensive efforts to publicize her attempt to gain public funding for female higher education and obtained financial support for a school in Troy, New York. The seminary opened in 1821 and proved to be a resounding success.

Proud of all she had accomplished but self-conscious in her role as innovator, Willard insisted on her own mode of schooling for women. Increasingly, she did not approve of attempts to widen women's public space, nor did she enjoy competition for her role as a leader in the field of female education. Rather, Emma Willard attempted to increase her own authority and that of her school by use of the strategies that had enabled her to prosper.

In 1833, she did risk her reputation, unknowingly, by becoming involved in a dubious scheme to enlist wealthy Americans in sponsoring female seminaries in Greece. One of the young men involved in the project was later tried by an ecclesiastical court in Chicago for misappropriation of church funds.

Willard sought to extend her authority among ex-students and "friends" of the school by founding the Willard Association for the Mutual Improvement of Female Teachers. Once more combining altruism with personal motives, her circulars nonetheless contain a remarkably thorough analyses of the qualities necessary for good teaching. Willard cautioned them to be alert; to trust their own judgment in curricular matters; and to govern their classrooms with a loving and patient heart. The Troy Seminary educated over 200 teachers before any teachers' normal schools were founded in the United States.

In 1838 an unfortunate second marriage hampered the widowed Emma Willard's ability to affect education broadly. In a letter to her good friend Amos Eaton, she admitted that she had made inquiries concerning the character of Christopher Yates, a physician from Albany, and that at one point she had broken off their engagement. Despite her doubts, she married Yates

on September 17, 1838, after carefully signing a prenuptial agreement that put Troy Seminary and the proceeds from the sale of her textbooks in the control of her son. After nine months of living with Yates in Boston (he was a gambler and a fortune hunter), Willard retired to Berlin, Connecticut, to live with a sister. In 1843, she petitioned for and was granted a divorce by the Connecticut Legislature with the legal right to use the name Emma Willard again.

Emma now eagerly accepted an offer from Henry Barnard, well-known Connecticut common-school reformer, to write an address on the pressing need for common schools in Kensington, Connecticut. Her speech so impressed the citizens that, in 1840, they elected her superintendent of their common schools. She energetically organized women's committees to supervise activities and raise funds for the common schools. She wrote, "I do not wish women to act out of their sphere; but it is time that modern improvements should reach their case and enlarge their sphere…. Why, in the name of common sense, should the school society hesitate to make a woman overseer of the schools?"

After completing her duties in the Connecticut common schools, Willard returned to New York where, her tarnished reputation restored, she became an active speaker for the new teachers' institutes springing up throughout the state. In the fall of 1845, she made a tour through southern New York and was heard by over 5,000 teachers. In 1846, she journeyed 8,000 miles through the South and the West, visiting seminaries and urging women to take an interest in the common schools.

Although there is no evidence that Willard was invited to or would have attended the women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, her published response on the issue of women's suffrage constituted a masterful display of her increasing comfort with halfway measures to achieve minimal change for women. In April 1848, she published an article in the American Literary Magazine addressed to a delegate to the French constitutional convention, entitled "The Political Position of Women." She carefully advocated a plan which partially enfranchised women and enlarged their political space to include care of the poor and of public morality as well as their role in education. Emma Willard's predilection for reform that guaranteed stability and promoted control of unruly elements was enhanced by increasing age and insecure social prominence.

Returning to Troy Seminary, she increasingly allowed her son and daughter-in-law Sarah Lucretia Hudson to govern the school while she remained an active and popular regional voice for women's education until her death in 1870.

Ambitious and hungry for recognition, Willard early perceived the personal rewards available in educational achievements for a bright, attractive young teacher. Encouraged by the significant men in her life, she eagerly sought the learning her intelligence demanded. Fortunate circumstances provided her with educational resources denied most women of the time; financial crisis gave her ample social justification for seizing control of her own and her family's destiny; power and prestige resulted from her efforts on behalf of women's higher education, and she achieved her ends without losing the admiration she sought and craved. Certainly the female seminary movement provided the vehicle for Willard's emergence on the American cultural scene during the exuberance of the Jacksonian period. Making controversial ideas palatable to people of influence by advocating the use of schooling and educated women as mediating forces, Willard pushed her sex toward a new definition of women and their role in American society.


Goodsell, Willystine, ed. Pioneers of Women's Education in the United States. NY: AMS Press, 1931.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Lord, John. Life of Emma Willard. NY: D. Appleton, 1873.

Lutz, Alma. Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1929.

——. Emma Willard, Pioneer Educator of American Women. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964.

Monroe, Paul, ed. A Cyclopedia of Education. Vol. 5. NY: Macmillan, 1913, pp. 795–811.

Scott, Ann. "A Widening Circle: The Diffusion of Feminist Values," in The History of Education Quarterly. Spring 1980.

Willard, Emma. A Plan For Improving Female Education (rep. of the 2nd ed. of 1819). VT: Middlebury College, 1918.

Woody, Thomas. A History of Women's Education In The United States. Vol. I. NY: Science Press, 1929.

suggested reading:

Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.


Emma Willard's papers and letters are located in the Emma Willard Library Archives in Troy, New York.

Anne J. Russ , Professor of Education and Sociology, Wells College, Aurora, New York

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Willard, Emma Hart (1787–1870)

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