July 23rd, 2019

Emma Willard: Pioneer for Higher Education of Women


Emma Willard was an early pioneer for the higher education of women. Her plan gained the approval of several presidents of the United States, including John Adams, John Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. In a letter written to Willard in 1819, John Adams said, “The female moiety of mankind deserves as much honor, esteem and respect as the male.”


She was born in 1787 and received great encouragement from her father. When she was 12, she was teaching herself geometry. At 20, she became the head of a women’s academy in Middlebury, Vermont. The academy was very successful, and won the support of parents who lived in the Middlebury area. She described her efforts as follows:


“My exertions, meanwhile, became unremitted and intense. My school grew to seventy pupils. I spent from ten to twelve hours a day in teaching, and on extraordinary occasions, as preparing for examination, fifteen; besides, always having under investigation some one new subject which, as I studied, I simultaneously taught to a class of my ablest pupils. Hence every new term, some new study was introduced; and in all their studies, my pupils were very thoroughly trained. In classing my school for the term of study, which was then about three months, I gave to each her course (being careful not to give too much), with the certain expectation that she must be examined on it at the close of term. Then I was wont to consider that my first duty as a teacher required of me that I should labor to make my pupils by explanation and illustration understand their subject, and get them warmed into it, by making them see its beauties and its advantages. During this first part of the process, I talked much more than the pupils were required to do, keeping their attention awake by frequent questions, requiring short answers from the whole class – for it was ever my maxim, if attention fails, teacher fails. Then in the second stage of my teaching, I made each scholar recite, in order that she might remember – paying special attention to the meaning of words, and to discern whether the subject was indeed understood without mistake. Then the third process was to make the pupil capable of communicating. And doing this in a right manner was to prepare her for examination. At this time I personally examined all my classes.”


Her biographer, Emma Lutz, in her book entitled Emma Willard, Daughter of Democracy, wrote of Willard, “She had seen the fulfillment of her prophecy made in 1829 that educated women would render their country a great service, and as she thought of this, contrasting the past with the present, she knew that she had not lived in vain.”


Her success in Middlebury attracted the attention of DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York, and in 1819, she moved her school to New York, where it is still known as the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York.


Another biographer wrote:


“A brilliant, enterprising and ingenious woman, where no way blazed, she cut one – for her solid geometry classes carved cones and pyramids out of potatoes and turnips; studied trigonometry, conic sections, “natural philosophy,” and taught them; wrote text-books in geography, history and astronomy, not to mention a treatise on the circulation of the blood; made a trip to Europe where she found much to enjoy, much to shock and nothing to equal her Troy Seminary; was entertained by Lafayette and presented at court; habitually relieved her feelings in verse; was prime mover in starting a training school for teachers in Athens; and everywhere and always remained herself convincing proof that a passion for mathematics or even physiology did not defeminize a woman.”



Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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