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Emma Hart was the 16th of 17 children born into a farming family in Berlin, Connecticut, in 1787. Her father had a liberal mind, encouraging all his children to read widely and to think for themselves. She first attended school in 1802 and quickly learned enough to begin teaching there in 1804. After a few years of teaching, she was asked to be the principal of a women’s academy in Middlebury, Vermont.
In 1809 Emma married the town’s physician, John Willard, and as was typical of the era, she left her teaching career to be a wife and mother to his four children as well as their own child. But even in the midst of this busy time, she managed to continue her own education by borrowing college textbooks from her husband’s nephew and learning subjects like geometry and philosophy, subjects that were not taught to girls. A financial crisis in 1812 resulted in the opening of a girls’ school from the Willard home in New York where she put into practice the subjects she herself had been learning.
Her views on female education inspired her to write them down in a pamphlet that was published in 1819 titled An Address to the Public: Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. Emma’s bold move led to the funding of the first school in the country for higher education for women, Troy Female Seminary, in 1821. She successfully ran the school until 1838, turning over its responsibility to her son and daughter-in-law.
While running the Troy school and even after she left, Emma continued to write. Her works include History of the United States, or Republic of America (1828), A System of Fulfillment of a Promise (1831), The Fulfilment of a Promise (a book of poetry, 1831) 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).
Her later years were filled with writing, traveling, and lecturing all across America and abroad. Her educational efforts helped establish a women’s school in Athens, Greece and she represented the United States at the World’s Educational Convention held in London in 1854.
Emma Willard died on April 15, 1870, in, Troy, New York but is still remembered today for her pioneering ideas about women’s education. In 1895 the school in Troy, New York, was renamed the Emma Willard School and is still teaching young women. A statue was also erected in Troy that same year to honor her service in education. In 1905, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, New York, and a memorial was erected in Middlebury, Vermont, in 1945.