Wednesday, July 11, 2012

155: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emma Willard

Dear Followers,


Most American women owe a huge debt to Emma Hart Willard (2/23/1787--4/15/1870), because she was one of the first women's rights activists and education pioneer for women. The photo above is of the Troy Female Seminary, which she founded to help both boarding and day students receive a quality education. Opened in September, 1881, it was the first center for higher education for women--and offered classes in philosophy, geography, history and science. Her school predated Mount Holyoke by 16 years, and the public high schools of Boston and New York City by five years. Willard always believed that nothing was more important for a woman than to be well educated; the right to vote meant much less to her than the right to study.

I became interested in Willard while reading David McCullough's new book The Greater Journey, which introduces us to accomplished Americans who visited Paris between the years 1830 and 1900. She was one of only a handful of American women to cross the Atlantic (at a time when travel on a sailing ship was no easy feat), to discover Europe for herself. She planned to use her experiences in Paris as away to broaden the horizons of her students back home, and her descriptions of the journey and the (incomparable) destination gave me new-found respect for this adventurous educator. 

Willard (born Emma Hart) was the 16th of 17 children. her father was a farmer and--unusual for the time--encouraged her to read and think for herself. He recognized her natural curiosity and talent for learning, and even though most girls back then received only a basic education (because they were destined to become housewives) he foresaw a different future for Emma (4: Supportive Someone). At the age of 15, she was enrolled at a local academy in Berlin, New York and quickly excelled; two years later she had been promoted to be a teacher, and by 1806 she was in charge of the school (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

For the next several years, she taught in Westfield, Massachusetts, and from 1807 to 1809 she was the principle of the Middlebury Female Seminary in Vermont. While there, she met and married Dr. John Willard who was 28 years her senior, and brought four children with him from his previous marriages. But unimpressed by the curriculum available at these schools, in 1814 she opened a boarding school for women in her own home.   Inspired by what her nephew (John Willard) was learning at Middlebury College, she decided to expose her students to subjects like mathematics and philosophy, rather than just domestically-oriented skills. This experiment proved that women could teach and girls could learn the classical and scientific subjects that were assumed to be suitable only for male students (11: Risk Addiction).

Soon afterwards, she began to fight for the first women's school for higher education in America.   Willard presented her ideas in a pamphlet that she gave to the New York Legislature in 1819. She proposed that a women's seminary should be publicly funded, just as men's schools were at that time. But the legislators believed that women's education was contrary to God's will, and they didn't even respond to her proposal. Just the year before, Thomas Jefferson had written a letter saying that women should not read too many novels or too much poetry. Willard, on the other hand, wrote that "the taste of men, whatever it might happen to be, has been made into a standard for the formation of female character...we too are primary existences...not the satellites of men" (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

Fortunately, Governor DeWitt Clinton suggested that she open a school in Waterford, New York. But when she didn't receive the necessary financial support, she moved her school to Troy in 1821, and it became the first school in The United States to offer higher education to women. Within ten years the enrollment was over 300 students (8: Turning No Into Yes). 

In 1825, when she was 38 years old, her husband died, and in 1838 she married Dr. Christopher Yates, and moved to Boston with him (she left her son and daughter-in-law in charge of the Troy Female Seminary). The marriage was an unhappy one, and they separated after only nine months; their divorce was final in 1843 (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Even though she retired as head of her school in 1838, her passions for education continued for the rest of her life (7: Magnificent Obsession). She wrote numerous books, travelled widely, and in 1854 she was the U.S. representative at London's World Education Convention.  In 1905, Willard was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, New York.

Looking forward to your comments...


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