A pioneer in women’s education, Emma Hart Willard founded Troy Female Seminary, the first school for young women in the United States.
Emma Hart was the sixteenth of seventeen children, born in Berlin, Connecticut, to a family that valued education. Her mother was literate at a time when very few women in New England could read and write, and her father believed in educating his daughters as well as his sons. Hart attended local schools and began her teaching career in 1804. In 1807, she moved to Middlebury, Vermont to manage a women’s academy.
Two years later, she married John Willard and, as was customary, she retired from teaching for a period of time. In 1814, Willard returned to her profession and opened a girls’ school in her home. Struck by the contrast between the education she could offer her students and the curriculum provided to young men at a nearby college, she wrote A Plan for Improving Female Education. The document advocated equal education for young women through the academy level.
At the encouragement of Governor DeWitt Clinton, Willard moved to New York in 1819 and opened a school in Waterford. In 1821, she relocated again, to Troy, and opened Troy Female Seminary. Renamed the Emma Willard School in her honor in 1895, the school saw thousands of young women pass through its doors during Willard’s lifetime.
In 1838, Willard left daily management of the school to her son and daughter-in-law and spent the last 30 years of her life traveling and writing. She returned often to the school, entertaining students in her house at the edge of the grounds, or even filling the role of principal as needed.
At the time of her death in 1870, Willard was proclaimed the best known woman in America. Since its founding, the Emma Willard School has been one of the nation’s leading schools for young women.