Emma Hart Willard – Women’s Education Trailblazer

Emma Hart Willard (1787–1870) was a leader in women’s education and advocate of the co-educational system who founded the first higher education school for women in the US in Troy, New York, the Troy Female Seminary which was renamed the Emma Willard School in 1895. She promoted education for women including “male” subjects (maths, science, philosophy etc.) around the country.

Emma Hart was born on February 23, 1787, in Connecticut as the daughter of a successful farmer and his second wife. She was the 16th out of 17 children. Her liberal father encouraged his children to read, think and discuss “male” topics such as politics, philosophy, and maths.

Emma started school when she was 15, and only 2 years later she was teaching there. 1806, aged 19, she was in charge of the school, and 1807, aged 20, she was appointed principal at the Middlebury Female Seminary in Vermont. There, she met physician John Willard, her future husband, who was 28 years older than her, and brought 4 children into their marriage. They married in 1909 and had one son, John Hart Willard, together.

John Willard’s nephew, also a student, lived with them, and Emma – recognizing the inequality between male and female education – started to study his textbooks and teach herself subjects like geometry and philosophy.

Committed to improving the academic curriculum for girls beyond basic education, deportment, and etiquette, she opened a boarding school for women, Middlebury Female Seminary, in her own home in 1814. There she taught girls subjects that were only taught at boys’ schools. In 1819, she presented a plan to the NY legislature to improve female education, including public funding for women’s schools (as it was the case for men’s schools). She didn’t get a response from them – some legislators thought women’s education was against God’s will – but from NY Governor DeWitt Clinton encouraging her to open a school in New York State.

She opened a school in Waterford, NY but never received funding. In 1821 she moved to Troy, NY where she finally obtained funds raised by the town and opened the Troy Female Seminary, the first school in the nation providing higher education to women, including science, history, mathematics, geography, and philosophy. In 1831, over 300 students, generally from wealthy, high status families were enrolled.

In 1825, Emma Willard’s husband John died. In 1838, Emma married Dr. Christopher Yates and moved to Boston with him, handing over the management of her school to her son and his wife. Yates and Emma separated already after 9 months and she managed to get divorced in 1843. From 1845 on Emma Willard served as teacher and advisor to the Troy Female Seminary.

She wrote multiple textbooks mostly about history and geography, including books with geographer William Channing Woodbridge. She sold more than a million history books over her lifetime. She also wrote poetry, and published articles.

Emma Willard developed visual learning aids for history education to represent complex historical information in chronological and historical context. She called these “maps of time” Chronographer. Her first Chronographer from was Picture of Nations and displayed civilizations as streams running through time. The Chronographer of American History depicted US historical events on the branches of a tree.

The Temple of Time showed historical events 3-dimensionally within an imagined Greek temple: On the floor, the rivers of time symbolize civilizations and in proportion to their political, military, economic power, geographic and cultural influence. There are 57 pairs of columns with recent history closer to the viewer. Each column represents a century and is marked with influential leaders. The roof displays other significant historical people organized by categories. The rivers of time on the temple floor play a similar role to those in the Picture of Nations in depicting the geographical, cultural, political, economic, and military power of each civilization as a proportion of the entire width of the floor. Willard created similar Chronographers for American, English, and Ancient history.

In her later years Emma Willard traveled through the US and Europe holding lectures to promote female education. In 1854 she represented the US at the World’s Educational Convention. She died at age 83 on April 15, 1870, in Troy, New York.

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