By Anthony Vinci
Emma Hart Willard was born (the 16th of 17 children) to Samuel and Lydia Hart on February 23, 1787, in Berlin, Connecticut. She went on to rise to international fame as a leader in women’s education and proponent of the co-educational system.
Willard’s father, supporting his daughter’s interest in education, enrolled her in school in Berlin at age 15. She progressed so quickly that by the age of 17 she was teaching. After finishing her education in Berlin, she left for Vermont. From 1807 to 1809, Willard served as the principal at the Middlebury Female Seminary in Middlebury, Vermont. She met her future husband, John Willard, at the seminary, and despite his being 28 years her senior, they married. John already had four children, and Emma soon gave birth to a son, John Hart Willard.
While caring for her children at home Emma Hart Willard began reading college books given to her by her nephew, John Willard. The textbooks furthered her interests in institutionalized education for women and Willard eventually founded the Middlebury Seminary Academy in her home. Willard’s curriculum included mathematics and history, subjects typically not taught to women, and her high academic standards not only created new opportunities for women by fostering the growth of co-educational schools, but also helped further the improvement of educational curricula in general.
Her educational achievements caught the attention of such renowned political leaders as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe, who leant support to her educational reforms. In 1819, she wrote a proposal to the New York State legislature entitled, “A Plan for Improving Female Education,” intended to promote improvement to women’s education. Most of the legislators did not agree with Willard’s vision of women’s education, however, but governor Dewitt Clinton did. Support from the town of Troy then led to the town raising taxes to fund Willard’s educational endeavors. The town of Troy eventually raised $4,000 to start the Troy Seminary School in September of 1821, opening its doors to 90 female students.
Despite Willard’s efforts, only the daughters of the wealthy attended Troy Seminary, as the cost of tuition proved beyond the means of a typical middle-class working family. In 1838, Willard’s son and daughter-in-law took over operations at the school.
Emma Willard as Author
In addition to being an educator and reformer, Willard was also a prolific writer whose publications greatly increased her influence. She believed in establishing her own guidelines for better education for women, and her book proceeds helped improve female education throughout the world. In 1833, she published Journal and Letters from France and Great Britain, focusing on the mediocrity of schools for women in France compared to those found in the United States. Profits from that book established a women’s seminary school in Greece.
In 1849, Willard penned Guide to the Temple of Time; and Universal History for Schools. In the same year, she published Last Leaves of American History. As a result these and many other accomplishments, she ended up representing the United States at the World’s Educational Convention in 1854 where she shared her knowledge of the co-educational system and its proposed benefits to both women and men.
Willard’s passion for education reform continued right up until her death at her home in Rensselaer County, New York, on April 15, 1870. She received a burial at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York.
Anthony Vinci is a student at Central Connecticut State University majoring in history with a minor in public history. He currently works for the Central Connecticut State University TRiO Program and is interning at the Central Connecticut State University Veterans History Project. After graduation, he intends to pursue a master’s in public history at Central Connecticut State University.