Willard fought for women to have an education in subjects like math and philosophy instead of the ones taught at finishing school. In 1821, she founded Troy Female Seminary, the first school in the US to offer higher education to women.
As Women's History Month continues, we're proud to spotlight some of the amazing contributions to education that women have made in our country. Emma Willard fought for women to have an education in subjects like math and philosophy instead of the ones taught at finishing school. In 1821, she founded Troy Female Seminary, the first school in the US to offer higher education to women.
Born in 1787 in central Connecticut, Emma Hart was one of 17 children. Although her father was a farmer, he emphasized to his children the importance of education and critical thinking. He also recognized in his daughter the inquisitive mind of an intellectual, and encouraged her to learn more about subjects that were, at the time, viewed as only pertaining to men. He would also enroll her in school in Berlin, CT when she was 15. A model student, after two short years, she began teaching at the school. By the time she turned 20, Emma had moved on to Vermont where she taught and eventually served as the principal at the Middlebury Female Seminary. It was there that she met Dr. John Willard. Although he was 28 years older than she was, the two married soon after.
Later on, his nephew would move in with them and expose Emma to the difference in subject matter being taught to men vs. women. Ever the consummate scholar, she quickly dove into these new materials and in 1814, then opened a boarding school in her home to share this newfound knowledge with other young women. The curriculum sat in stark contrast to the subject traditionally taught at finishing schools like painting, singing and etiquette. Emma believed that women were capable of learning more advanced subjects, and pushed for more funding for women’s higher education. Five years after starting the school in her home, she wrote A Plan for Improving Female Education outlining a strategy for further development of higher education for women. She presented the pamphlet to the New York Legislature, but didn’t receive a welcome response. Fortunately her work left a distinct impression on New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, who invited her to open a school in the state.
In 1821, Emma opened the Troy Female Seminary - the country’s first school to offer higher education for women. The subjects covered in the curriculum included mathematics, philosophy, geography, history, and science. Over the next 10 years, the school achieved great success; enrolling more than 300 students. While many of her students came from well-to-do families and still sought to be housewives, Emma continued to support their academic achievement as crucial to their success in life. In 1838, she turned over control of the school to her son and daughter-in-law, and moved to Boston with her husband. She spent the final years of her life traveling throughout the US and abroad championing women’s education. In 1895, 25 years after her death, The Troy Female Seminary was renamed Emma Willard School. The school still exists today and continues to support her legacy.
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