The Remarkable Achievements of Emma Hart Willard

Native of Berlin, Connecticut changed education of women forever

The school colors for Berlin High School are red and blue, and their teams are nicknamed the “Redcoats,” but perhaps the school colors should have been purple and gold—the colors of the Women’s Rights Movement—as Berlin, Connecticut, is the birthplace of the most influential advocate for girls’ education in the United States: Emma Hart Willard. The 16th of 17 children in the Hart family, Emma was born in Berlin, Connecticut, 224 years ago this week on February 23, 1787.

Encouraged by the open mind of her father, Samuel Hart, Emma began studying geometry at age 12. To say that the world she lived in at the time frowned upon girls studying challenging academic subjects (such as math) is to grossly understate the matter; in fact, many believed that girls who pursued academics would get ill and might die! Willard began teaching in 1807 at the age of 20 and became a strong advocate for girls’ education beyond the eighth grade. She believed that girls were every bit as capable as males of mastering academic subjects.

Accepting an offer to teach in Middlebury, Vermont, in 1809, Emma Hart moved there and married Dr. John Willard. Encouraged by her husband to promote the education of girls, Emma opened up the Middlebury Female Seminary in her home in 1814. Moving to New York State in 1819, Willard testified in front of the New York legislature that year on the topic of education for women and said, “We too are primary existences…and not the satellites of men.”* She soon opened up the Waterford Academy in upstate New York. It closed due to lack of funding in 1821, despite support from Governor DeWitt Clinton. Undeterred, she opened up the very successful Troy Female Seminary in the fall of 1821.

Besides teaching and administering schools, Emma Willard was a prolific writer of books for education. She was particularly interested in promoting the study of history and geography. (See photo of book.) In fact, her history of America published in 1828 under the title Republic Of America proved to be so popular that even Daniel Webster wrote a letter to her commending its qualities. One of her sisters, Almira Hart, was also a teacher and writer of influential science books, which were used nationally. Almira Hart was the second woman ever elected to the American Association for the Advancement Of Science.

It should surprise nobody that the Women’s Rights Movement of the 19th century had its origins in upstate New York in the middle decades of that century. Indeed, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, was a graduate of Emma Willard’s school, as were other leading suffragettes. Another Troy Female Seminary graduate (class of 1847) was Olivia Slocum Sage, wife of railroad tycoon, Russell Sage. Committed to furthering female education, Olivia used her husband’s considerable wealth to start Russell Sage College on the former campus of the Troy Female Seminary in downtown Troy, NY. She then endowed the Troy Female Seminary with enough money to move its location to picturesque Mt. Ida and to rename it the “Emma Willard School.” The Emma Willard School remains today as the oldest female secondary school in the United States. Its location is so picturesque that scenes from two movies have been filmed there: The Emperor’s Club (2002) starring Kevin Kline, Rob Morrow, and Edward Hermann and Scent of a Woman (1992) starring Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell.

Emma Hart Willard from Berlin, Connecticut, shook up her world with her enlightened views of education for women. The consequences of her beliefs and actions have had an enormous impact on the course of American history. Her biographer, John Lord, summarized her life well when he wrote, “She demonstrated, and was one of the first to demonstrate, that there are no subjects which young men can grasp which cannot equally be mastered by young ladies.”*

Works by Emma Hart Willard:

Abridged History of the United States, or, Republic of America.

An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education.

Advancement of Female Education, or, A Series of Addresses in Favor of Establishing at Athens in Greece, A Female Seminary Especially Designed to Instruct Female Teachers.

Ancient Atlas, to Accompany the Universal Geography.

Ancient Geography as Connected with Chronology.

Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography.

Atlas to Accompany a System of the Universal History.* (See Photo)

Everest Charles W. The Poets of Connecticut: With Biographical Sketches.

Hartford: Case Tiffany and Burnham, 1844. (includes Emma Willard's poem "Bride-Stealing.")

The Fulfillment of a Promise: by Which Poems,...Are Published and Affectionately Inscribed to Her Past and Present Pupils.

Geography for Beginners, or The Instructor’s Assistant in Giving First Lessons from Maps in the Style of Familiar Conversation.

Goddard, Abba A., The Trojan Sketch Book. Troy: Young & Hart 1846. (includes several pieces written by Emma Willard.)

Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools.

History of the United States, or Republic of America.

Journal and Letters from France and Great Britain. (Correspondence from a trip in the early 1830s.)

Last Leaves of American History.

Last Periods of Universal History.

Morals for the Young, or Good Principles Instilling Wisdom.

Respiration, and Its Effects: More Especially in Relation to Ssiatic Cholera, and Other Sinking Diseases.

Rudiments of Geography, on a New Plan. Universal Geography, Ancient and Modern: On the Principles of Comparison and Classification.

A Series of Maps to an Abridgement of the History of the United States.

A Series of Maps to Willard’s History of the United States, or Republic of America.

A Treatise on the Motive Powers Which Produce the Circulation of the Blood

Universal Geography, Ancient and Modern, on the Principles of Comparison and ClassificationChanning Woodbridge, co-author).

Willard's English Chronographer, or, Chronology of Great Britain.

Willard’s Map of Time: A Comparison to the Historic Guide.


Notes and Sources:

1. * John Lord  as quoted in The Conservationist March-April 1979

2. hmdb.org

3. emmawillard.org

4. findagrave.com

5. American Women, Vol II, pg., 777; revised edition, 1897


Correction: The original article stated that the school colors of Berlin High School are red and white. The official school colors are red and blue.

Gary Brochu February 22, 2011 at 12:39 PM
Great article. But the colors of Berlin High School are red and blue.
Cassandra Day February 22, 2011 at 06:28 PM
Thank you, Gary. We've updated the story.


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