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.

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Further Reading on Emma Hart Willard

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 Biography 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.