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Emma Hart Willard (1787–1870)

Portrait of Emma Hart Willard, from John Lord, The Life of Emma Willard, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873.
Portrait of Emma Hart Willard, from John Lord, The Life of Emma Willard, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873.

Emma Willard was an educator, writer, and founder of the Troy Female Seminary, the country's first academic school for young women. Willard's efforts to gain public support for the education of young women, coupled with the school's success, spurred the establishment of other academic high schools for girls, women's colleges, and co-educational universities.

Willard was born in Hartford, CT, the 16th of 17 children in a prosperous farming family. She studied and later taught at several girls' academies, and, in 1807, moved to Middlebury, Vermont to direct a girls' school. In 1809, she temporarily left teaching to marry Dr. John Willard, a widower 28 years her senior. With her husband's approval, Willard opened the Middlebury Female Seminary in her home in 1814. Willard's rigorous school program demonstrated young women's abilities to master classical and scientific subjects, areas of study which were at the time largely considered appropriate only for young men. She began to invite scholars and prominent citizens to exhibitions of the girls' proficiencies at examination time and the school became well-known.

In 1819, inspired by the school's success, she wrote "An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education," a pamphlet in which she envisioned a publicly endowed seminary supervised by a board of public men, as were schools for young men. To get the attention and support of men in public office, she sent her pamphlet to New York's Governor Clinton, who responded with encouragement. The pamphlet was then sent to some of the most prominent men in the country, including President Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who all approved of Willard's proposals for the education of young women.

At Governor Clinton's invitation, Willard moved to Waterford, New York and opened the Waterford Academy in 1819. When the school was forced to close by its second year for lack of funding, Willard moved to Troy, New York, establishing the Troy Female Seminary with financial support from the town's council. By 1831 the school had an enrollment of over 300, 100 of whom were boarding students. The school antedated Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Seminary by 16 years and the first public high schools for girls, in Boston and New York City, by five.

The school's reputation grew nationally and internationally. When she made a trip to France and England in 1830, Willard expected to learn from her teaching colleagues, but instead found them seeking her counsel. Upon her return to Troy, she geared the school's emphasis toward preparing girls for careers in teaching, establishing the school as a primary model for teachers' schools in the US.

While head of the seminary, Willard published a number of textbooks, including History of the United States, or Republic of America (1828) and A System of Universal History in Perspective (1835). She also published a volume of verse, The Fulfillment of a Promise (1831). In 1838, Willard handed over leadership of the school to her son.

She traveled, lectured, and wrote extensively in her later years. Among her later books are A Treatise on the Motive Powers Which Produce the Circulation of the Blood (1846), Guide to the Temple of Time; and Universal History for Schools (1849), Last Leaves of American History (1849), Astronography; or Astronomical Geography (1854), and Morals for the Young (1857). Willard died in Troy in 1870 and the Troy Female Seminary was renamed the Emma Willard School in 1895, and remains in operation today.

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