Emma Willard was a pioneer whose work to expand learning opportunities for young women in nineteenth century America laid the foundations for formal female academic education.
In an era when there were no colleges anywhere in the world that admitted girls, young women were limited in their learning to soft subjects and ‘accomplishments’, such as sewing, drawing and music. But Emma Willard saw that girls were just as able to learn as young men, and she dedicated herself to helping them achieve their potential.
She was born Emma Hart in 1787 in Connecticut, the 16th of 17 children from a prosperous farming family. Her father, a liberal man, saw her early promise and encouraged her to read and talked to her on subjects – normally reserved for her young male counterparts – like politics and philosophy.
Within a few years, when still a teenager, she was teaching and beginning to plan how to expand the educational opportunities for young women.
She married a doctor, Dr John Willard, in 1809 and in 1814, founded Middlebury Female Seminary in response to the local college’s refusal to admit women. Brimming with confidence over its success, Willard moved to Troy, New York and opened the Troy Female Seminary in the hope of attracting public funding.
Her initial efforts failed despite the support of New York’s governor, De Witt Clinton, and it wasn’t until 1819, when she published a pamphlet, ‘Address… Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education’, that support began to gather pace. In it, she argued 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.’
He went on: ‘These, for a female, are dancing, drawing, and music.’
Willard said 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.’
Always careful to appeal to men’s self-interests, Willard added: ‘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?’
Accepting that girls would nevertheless need domestic skills in adulthood, and maybe fearful of pushing too-hard-too-soon against a strong, conservative current of traditionalism, she did, however, encourage young women’s domestic strengths while at the same time teaching them subjects such as mathematics, classics, botany, physiology, geology and astronomy.
More publications expounding her education philosophy followed, and she doggedly continued the hard work of ‘networking’ among the great and the good, so that eventually she earned philanthropic support from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Monroe.
In 1838, she handed over the running of her school to her son and daughter-in-law, turning more to lecturing, writing and travelling in her latter years. She died in 1870.
Troy Female Seminary was renamed the Emma Willard School (affectionately known as Emma) in 1895, as a tribute to its founder. It remains a highly successful private, independent school for girls and is the oldest non-denominational girls’ boarding school in the States.