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Women’s History Personified

Melissia Mason
More than 200 years ago, the bold and courageous Emma Hart Willard founded a school where girls would experience the same opportunities available to their brothers—to learn, to lead, to invent, and discover! Each year during Women’s History Month, we become acutely aware of Madame Willard’s contribution to women’s history and the place that her students have played in the milestones women have achieved. In our archives, we see the impact of Madame Willard’s desire to teach females the same subjects once reserved for men only. The first female to sit for a public examination in mathematics in 1829 was a student of Troy Female Seminary, Mary Kramer. Today, our students excel in mathematics and compete internationally. A team of five Emma students (Caroline A. ’21, Lillian L. ’22, Irene N. ’21, Coco W. ’21, and Gabby Z. ’22) recently placed in the top 9% of papers submitted to the MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge. They built a predictive mathematical model and proposed solution for planning Internet bandwidth, cellular node distribution, and minimizing inequality of access.

There are many other legacies left by women who, but for Emma Hart Willard’s work, may not have had the opportunity to pursue higher education. Historians and activists alike look to the complex legacy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1832) when discussing how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go in achieving equal rights for all. Today’s scientists are increasingly inspired by Eunice Newton Foote (1838), who first observed and documented the greenhouse effect, and note the work of Erminnie Adele Platt Smith (1853), the first woman field enthnographer, who was also the first female elected to the New York Academy of Sciences. Educators look to the leadership of individuals like Kendra Stearns O’Donnell ’60, who was the first female head of Phillips Exeter Academy (featured in the Fall 2019 edition of Signature magazine). Physicians look to the leadership of individuals like Mary Lake Polan ’61, who was the first female chair of a clinical department at Stanford University Medical School (featured in the Spring 2020 edition of Signature magazine). The Emma Willard School community learns amidst the backdrop of this vast, rich women’s history every day.

At the same time, we are constantly looking outward, remembering and acknowledging the influence of women who may have never known about Madame Willard and her work. During this Women’s History Month, members of our community have taken a moment to reflect on the people and events that have meant the most to them. Consider these contributions, which our community members have found meaningful:
  • Mary Shelley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman both were amazing writers in a male-dominated field, and the latter raised awareness for women's mental health in the late 1800s.” - Crystalynn C. ’22
  • Ada Lovelace wrote the first published computer program.” - Mathematics Instructor Laszlo Bardos
  • Ryu Gwansun, a Korean historical female figure who was a fighter for independence... She was young but courageous enough to raise her voice for independence even though she could be killed.” - Dorothy C. ’24
  • “When the first group of women were admitted in 1976, my father was a professor at West Point, and I was living on campus. Watching the first parade on the parade fields that included women is so memorable. This was a small but important signal to my seven-year-old self that women can do anything they want.” - Computer Science and Mathematics Instructor Chiara Shah
  • Sally Ride! She was the first American woman in space. She also was gay, which didn’t come out until after her death. It is inspiring to know that prominent women may have been part of the LGBTQ+ community, but just weren't out. She is someone like me who is doing something I want to do, which is inspiring.” - Olivia M. ’22
  • “I admire Dorothy Dandridge because she was the first African American woman to be nominated for an academy award for best actress. As someone who has a performing arts background, I believe she paved the way for MANY other Black women to act and break barriers in their respective categories.” - Residential Faculty Deidra Jefferson
  • “The voting rights protests. So many people spent so much time fighting for equal rights for women. I believe that having a voice is the starting point for any change. Because of these protests, it made way for women to have a voice and a place at the table. This was the beginning of women’s voices being truly valued.” - Morgan K. ’21
  • Viola Liuzzo was a white civil rights activist who was killed by members of the KKK because she was helping to shuttle Black activists from Montgomery, AL to Selma in 1965. Viola drove by herself from Detroit to Alabama because she felt called to be a part of the right side of history. She knew the risks and sacrifices associated with this choice, and paid the ultimate price the night the klansmen ran her car off the road and shot and killed her. Viola's courage haunts me and I am drawn to the deepest trenches of my own courage when I think of her in my own work.” Interim Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Gemma Halfi

We look forward to the day when today’s Emma Willard School scholars, scientists, artists, writers, musicians, and athletes are mentioned alongside these who have made history and so enriched the world around them.
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    • Some of the women we remember when reflecting on Women's History Month

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Welcome to Emma Willard School, a private day and boarding high school for girls in Troy, NY, and a leader in girls' education for over 200 years.