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Emma Willard’s Educational Mission: Characters of Citizens are Formed by Their Mothers

Emma Willard

“The education of women has been too exclusively directed to fit them for displaying to advantage the charms of youth and beauty…the taste of men, whatever it might happen to be, has been made into a standard for the formation of the female character…we too are primary existences… not the satellites of men.”

So said Emma Willard  (1787 – 1870) as one of the first women to address the New York Legislature. She presented a pamphlet she’d written titled “A Plan for Improving Female Education”, in which she proposed that education for women be publicly funded, just as it was for men.

Advocate for Women’s Education

In 1918, it was commonly believed that women were incapable of learning such subjects as mathematics. However, Governor Dewitt Clinton was so impressed with her presentation that he responded by sending her a note which read

the very fact of such a production from a female pen, must dissipate all doubts on the subject”,

referring to women’s capacity for higher learning.

Although Emma Willard did not support the women’s suffrage movement, she was one of the first feminists, in that she believed in the importance of women’s education. Her brave determination to secure equal educational rights for women is evident in her description of her political activism.

“Once I had almost determined to seek permission to go in person before the legislature, and plead at their bar with my living voice; believing I should throw my whole soul in the effort for my sex, and then sink down and die from the exertion.”

Emma Willard’s family life

Emma Willard was the sixteenth of seventeen children. Her parents recognized and supported her love of learning. She was homeschooled with her siblings on the family farm until age 15, when the first school in her area opened in 1802. She learned so quickly that she became a teacher there within two years. From 1807 to 1809, she served as the principal of the Middlebury Female Seminary, but she was unhappy with the limitations of the curriculum. Inspired by subjects such as science, mathematics, philosophy, geography, and history that her nephew was studying in school, she opened her own boarding school in 1814.

In addition to becoming the mother of one son, John Willard Hart, with her husband John Willard, she also became a stepmother to his four children from a previous marriage. The concept of a working mother was still socially unacceptable. However, during the war of 1812, the Bank of Vermont was robbed. Her husband, one of the directors, was held responsible by depositors and lost his position. These circumstances allowed her to justify returning to her former position as an educator. During her many years as an educator, Emma Willard adopted two more children and served as a surrogate mother to hundreds of students.

Citizens, formed by their mothers

Emma Willard, in attempting to secure public funding for secondary education for women, pointed out that citizens are

“formed by their mothers and it is through the mothers, that the government can control the character of its future citizens, to form them such as will ensure their country’s prosperity.”

While she focused on the positive aspects of female education in terms of patriotism, she was not afraid to point out the hypocrisy and potential negative effects of educational inequality.

“How would the countenance of the intelligent mother darken, and her voice falter, should she attempt to teach her son to love a country which treats with contempt the rights of her sex”.

Her boarding school, the Troy Female Seminary, was attended by many of the wealthiest women of the state. She used these funds in part to subsidize the tuition-free education of many less fortunate women in exchange for their agreeing to teach at the school for a time after graduation. Her influence eventually reached as far as Athens, Greece, where she successfully campaigned to open a similar women’s school. She was also the author of a number of textbooks, including two that she co-authored with geographer William Channing Woodbridge.

Emma Willard’s Honors

In honor of her important contributions to women’s education, the Troy Female Seminary was renamed the Emma Willard School in 1895, as well as a statue being erected in her honor. She became an inductee into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York in 1905. In 1941, Middlebury, Vermont dedicated the Emma Willard Memorial.

The Emma Willard School still operates today. It remains a testament to her courage and strength as a woman and a mother. Despite a great deal of criticism of both her personal character and her educational methods, she helped to ensure the right of women to receive an equal education.

You can find more on the history of mother care and feminism, in this article.

Emma Willard

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