Emma Willard and Female Education

Born on February 23, 1787, in Berlin, Connecticut, Emma Hart Willard is remembered for her trailblazing efforts on behalf of women’s education.The sixteenth of seventeen children, she attended local schools and then began teaching near her home in 1804. In 1807, Emma Hart went to Middlebury, Vermont, to run a female academy. Two years later she married town physician, John Willard, a widower with four young children. She retired from teaching and in 1814 opened a girls’ school in her home to help with family finances. Five years later, Willard wrote an address to the public, specifically to the members of the New York Legislature, proposing A Plan for Improving Female Education. She published the plan and sent copies to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams with the intension of winning public support for girls’ schools. Willard advocated equal education for young women through the academy level.

In September of 1819, with the encouragement of Governor DeWitt Clinton, Emma Willard moved to New York and opened a school in Waterford, but after two years she moved to Troy and opened the Troy Female Seminary, shown in a print from a drawing by Thirza Lee, instructor of drawing and painting and former student of the school. Thousands of young women passed through the Troy school during her lifetime. Willard became financially successful, both from the profits of her school and from the best-selling textbooks that she authored.

Willard left daily management of the school to her son and daughter-in-law in 1838, the year she remarried. She spent the last thirty years of her life traveling and writing, although the seminary and Troy remained her home base. Willard died in 1870 and the school was renamed in her honor in 1895.


Magnifying Glass
Emma Willard’s Desk
c. 1800
Stained maple, poplar, mahogany, brass hardware
Magnifying Glass
Troy Female Seminary
After Thirza Lee
c. 1830
Hand-colored engraving and etching on paper