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History

A courageous woman with a bold idea transformed education.

Our founder Madame Emma Hart Willard

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.

Emma Hart Willard's %22Plan for Female Education%22 from the Emma Willard School archives.

Madame Willard's plan from the Emma Willard School archives.

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.

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The History of Emma Willard School

This timeline highlights key dates and moments in our long history as the first institution of higher learning for girls.
A wealth of documents, photographs, and records may be accessed by contacting the Emma Willard School Archives.

1814

Emma Willard's home in Middlebury, Vermont

Emma Hart Willard opens her first school for girls in the living room of her home in Middlebury, Vermont

1819

Madame Willard's handwritten notes for her proposal to NYS legislature

Madame Willard presents her “Plan for Improving Female Education” to Governor Clinton and the New York Legislature

1820

Document showing the incorporation of the Waterford Female Academy

School is moved to Waterford, New York with support from Governor Clinton and funding from local residents

1821

Examination Room in the New Troy Female Seminary

Troy, New York residents grant $4,000 to move the Seminary to the heart of the city, now the Russell Sage College campus

1870

Portrait of Emma Hart Willard in her later years.

Emma Hart Willard dies at the age of 83, a celebrated author, cartographer, educator, and trailblazing womens' rights activist

1895

Students unveil a statue of Emma Hart Willard at the Russell Sage Hall in Troy, NY

Three new buildings and statue of Madame Willard unveiled, school renamed "The Emma Hart Willard School for Girls"

1901

Front cover of the first issue of "The Triangle"

First issue of Triangle published including creative writing, academic calendar, alumnae notes, and local advertisements

1910

Chapel construction at the new Mount Ida campus in 1910

Alumna and noted philanthropist Olivia Slocum Sage (Class of 1847) funds construction of a new campus on Mount Ida

1915

Photo from the first "Revels" play in Kiggins Auditorium

First performance of Revels, the most beloved of Emma traditions, a clever adaptation of a "mummers' play"

1928

Students with Miss Eliza Kellas

Following World War I, boarding is reinstituted under Ms. Eliza Kellas, who pushed for trustees to add a dormitory

1950

Students portray their "guinea pig" status under correlated curriculum

An innovative shift in pedagogy, the "correlated curriculum" is established between arts, humanities, and religion

1960s

Students campaign for Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Ohio

Issues of Civil Rights and race in politics were a prominent fixture of campus life and student volunteerism in the 1960s

1984

Students who took part in the influential "Dodge Study"

Harvard researcher Carol Gilligan completes her influential "Dodge Study" of female adolescents with Emma Willard

1997

The Cheel Aquatics center opens on campus in 1997

After 30 years without new construction, the Cheel Aquatic Center opens due to funding from Helen S. Cheel 1923

2000

A rear facing view of the Hunter Science Center at Emma Willard School

Hunter Science Center opens, a carefully planned addition to Weaver Hall and named in honor of Irene M. Hunter 1935

2014

An aerial shot of the Emma Willard campus from 2014

Emma Willard School celebrates its bicentennial year—just a few years behind the nation's—with a campus celebration

2017

Jenny Rao at the inauguration ceremony for headship in 2017

Jenny Rao is inaugurated as Head of School on October 19, assuming the 17th headship of the school since its founding

2022

Confetti is shot into the air at the launch of the Infinite Horizon campaign

Infinite Horizon—with a goal of $175 million raised by 2026—is launched as the largest campaign in the history of girls' schools