A courageous woman with a bold idea transformed education.
Emma Hart Willard, our founder, was a lifelong advocate and champion for women's education. Gender roles were firmly entrenched in the post-Revolutionary War society of America in her youth, but Emma Willard's father, Samuel Hart, encouraged her to pursue academics and philosophy. By the age of 13, she taught herself geometry and had enrolled in the Berlin Academy in Connecticut, where she attended for two years before becoming an instructor there. At the age of 19, she was offered a summer teaching job at a girls' school in Middlebury, Vermont.
However, her experience at these "finishing schools" for young women—focused so intently on preparing them for the roles and responsibilities society imposed on them at the time—inspired her to chart a new course. In 1814, just 26 years old and bearing a financial burden from her father's passing and outstanding debts, Emma Willard opened a new kind of boarding school for intellectually curious women out of her home in Middlebury. This "Middlebury Female Seminary" operated out of Madame Willard's living room for five years, a fledgling foundation for what would become a transformational educational institution.
In 1819, based on her experience running her home-based seminary, Emma Willard wrote "A Plan for Improving Female Education," a proposal addressed to the New York State Legislature which argued a practically unheard of concept at that time: young women needed access to the same subjects of learning as young men. Yet, her direct experience as both a student and an educator in other female academies lent credence to her idea and soon some of the most influential members of early American society had joined her cause, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and, most importantly, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton.
With stalwart support from Governor Clinton and New York residents, Emma Willard relocated her seminary first to the town of Waterford, New York and, in 1821, ultimately established the Troy Female Seminary in the growing industrial and trade center of Troy, New York. Madame Willard remained head of the Seminary until 1838 and passed in 1870, having seen her vision come to fruition. In 1895, the Seminary was renamed The Emma Willard School For Girls and in 1910 work began on a new, expanded campus atop Mount Ida complete with dormitories, a gymnasium and soaring stone towers. Atop "the heights of Ida" we remain, carrying on the enduring legacy and vitality of Emma Hart Willard's vision into this third century of operation.
From humble beginnings, this institution has assumed a place at the forefront of innovation in American education and the women's empowerment movement around the world. Emma Hart Willard’s ideals as a young woman led to a storied tradition we celebrate to this day at Emma Willard School.
Emma Hart Willard opens her first school for girls in the living room of her home in Middlebury, Vermont
Madame Willard presents her “Plan for Improving Female Education” to Governor Clinton and the New York Legislature
School is moved to Waterford, New York with support from Governor Clinton and funding from local residents
Troy, New York residents grant $4,000 to move the Seminary to the heart of the city, now the Russell Sage College campus
Emma Hart Willard dies at the age of 83, a celebrated author, cartographer, educator, and trailblazing womens' rights activist
Three new buildings and statue of Madame Willard unveiled, school renamed "The Emma Hart Willard School for Girls"
First issue of Triangle published including creative writing, academic calendar, alumnae notes, and local advertisements
Alumna and noted philanthropist Olivia Slocum Sage (Class of 1847) funds construction of a new campus on Mount Ida
First performance of Revels, the most beloved of Emma traditions, a clever adaptation of a "mummers' play"
Following World War I, boarding is reinstituted under Ms. Eliza Kellas, who pushed for trustees to add a dormitory
An innovative shift in pedagogy, the "correlated curriculum" is established between arts, humanities, and religion
Issues of Civil Rights and race in politics were a prominent fixture of campus life and student volunteerism in the 1960s
Harvard researcher Carol Gilligan completes her influential "Dodge Study" of female adolescents with Emma Willard
After 30 years without new construction, the Cheel Aquatic Center opens due to funding from Helen S. Cheel 1923
Hunter Science Center opens, a carefully planned addition to Weaver Hall and named in honor of Irene M. Hunter 1935
Emma Willard School celebrates its bicentennial year—just a few years behind the nation's—with a campus celebration
Jenny Rao is inaugurated as Head of School on October 19, assuming the 17th headship of the school since its founding
Infinite Horizon—with a goal of $175 million raised by 2026—is launched as the largest campaign in the history of girls' schools