Emma Hart Willard had always shown an aptitude for academic work. Gender roles were strongly enforced in post-revolutionary America, but Samuel Hart encouraged his daughter to study, often interrupting her domestic duties to listen to different philosophical essays he’d written.
At the age of 13 she taught herself geometry and later enrolled in the Berlin Academy, which was essentially a finishing school where she attended for two years before teaching there. In 1807, at the age of 19, she was offered a summer teaching job at a girls’ school in Middlebury, Vermont. The conditions the girls experienced there, paired with family financial hardship, inspired Emma to open a boarding school in her home in Middlebury.
She was inspired by her nephew, who lived with Emma and her husband John Willard while studying at Middlebury College and tutored her in geometry and philosophy.
When the Middlebury Female Seminary opened in spring 1814, it was with the vision that girls should be as highly educated as boys. From the outset, she created an academically rigorous curriculum, including mathematics, natural history, and science, even though she had to stay just ahead of her students in the subjects.
The school gained positive attention, but lawmakers in Vermont refused to fund girls’ education despite Emma’s continuous lobbying. When she was refused aid from Vermont Governor Cornelius Van Ness again in 1818, she took her pitch to the New York State legislature, where she presented her proposal, Plan for the Improvement of Female Education, which carefully detailed her arguments for female education.
“It is the duty of a government to do all in its power to promote the present and future prosperity of the nation, over which it is placed. This prosperity will depend on the character of its citizens. The character of these will be formed by their mothers,” she wrote.
With encouragement from New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton, Emma moved with her husband and many of her students to Waterford, New York before learning her proposal was ultimately rejected by legislature.
Emma did not stop in her mission and two years later she convinced officials in the small town of Troy, New York to create a special tax to cover the cost of buying land and constructing a Troy Female Seminary.
For the first time in the United States girls were offered the opportunity to engage in real intellectually engaging academics. Students studied from textbooks authored by Madame Willard herself, which would later be translated and printed in several European and Asian languages and remain popular long after she passed.
The Troy Seminary became immensely popular, opening with 61 boarding students and 29 day students in 1821. By 1872 the school had admitted approximately 12,000 students, including noted American suffragist and social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of female colleges, which made the role of seminary education less clear. However, in the 1890s, alumnae of the Troy Female Seminary raised capital funds for new buildings in downtown Troy, and new emphasis was put on developing a curriculum that would prepare students for college. The school was also renamed “Emma Willard School” in honor of its founder in 1892.
In 1910, with the aid of a $1 million gift from Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, a graduate of the Troy Female Seminary and one of America’s leading philanthropists, the school opened a new campus on Mount Ida, its current home, complete with three neo-gothic buildings.