As a child on her family's farm in Berlin, Connecticut, Emma Willard learned from her liberal-minded father to disregard the view that girls should be intellectually inferior to boys. Her formal education began at the age of fifteen when she enrolled in Berlin Academy, and within two years she was instructing the school's younger pupils. In 1807 she accepted a position as preceptress at the female seminary in Middlebury, Vermont, where she made her reputation as a leader and educator by smoothing over the denominational tensions in the school.
Doctor John Willard had supported the young administrator through the conflict, and she married him in 1809. When he lost a substantial portion of his income shortly thereafter, she opened a school for girls in their home, the Middlebury Female Seminary. Experimental in her approach, Emma Willard endeavored to prove that she could teach a rigorous academic curriculum without risking damage to her pupils' health, refinement, or charm.
Inspired by the success of her school in Vermont, Emma Willard petitioned the New York state legislature for money to create a public school for girls, and though she found little government support for the idea, she eventually opened the privately funded Troy Female Seminary. Her students studied both subjects typically thought inappropriate for young ladies (philosophy and science) and more traditionally feminine pursuits (etiquette and art), and they spread Emma Willard's attitude and approach throughout the country as teachers after they graduated. The textbooks Willard authored likewise advanced her goals for women's education.
Her husband served as the school's doctor and business manager. Although he died in 1825, she retained full control of the school until passing her position on to her son and daughter in-law in 1838. While she defended women's intellectual capabilities throughout her life, she never pressed for or supported women's political rights. In 1895 her Troy Female Seminary became the Emma Willard School.
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