Thursday, March 1, 2012

2012 Women's History Month Honoree - Emma Hart Willard

A great place to get started on the 2012 Women's History Month celebration is the National Women's History Project website. There, they have listed six honorees with special connections to this year's theme, "Women's Education -- Women's Empowerment."

First up is Emma Hart Willard, born on February 23, 1787, in Berlin, Connecticut, the sixteenth of seventeen children. Her father, Samuel Hart, was a farmer who encouraged his children to read and think for themselves, and at a young age, Willard’s father recognized and encouraged her passion for learning. Although, at the time women were only provided basic education, her father made sure to include her in family discussions such as politics, philosophy, and the sciences.

It wasn't until she was 15 that she was enrolled in her first school in her hometown. She surprised her teachers with her aptitude and quickness, and by the age of 17 she was teaching at the school. She even took charge of the academy for a term in 1806.

In 1807, she left Berlin and took a job of principal at the Middlebury Female Seminary until 1809. However, she was unimpressed by the limited curriculum of the school and, now married, left the school, and eventually opened a boarding school for women in 1814 in her home.

At the time, her nephew, John Willard, was studying at Middlebury College, and she and he discussed what he was being taught. This inspired her to improve the curriculum that was taught at girls’ schools, which were more like finishing schools, where women were not taught the typical male-subjects like mathematics and philosophy.

The Emma Willard Memorial, dedicated in 1941. Photo source: Don Shall
This passion for women's education led her to fight for the first women's school for higher education. She wrote A Plan for Improving Female Education, an influential proposal intended to bring attention to the importance of girls’ schools.  She advocated equal education for young women through the academy level.

In 1819, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton encouraged her to move to New York and open a school in Waterford.  Two years later, she moved to Troy, where she opened the Troy Female Seminary (renamed in her honor in 1895). Hers was the first school in the United States to offer higher education for women. The curriculum consisted of the subjects she had longed to include in women’s education: mathematics, philosophy, geography, history, and science. During her lifetime, thousands of young women attended the Troy school, and many of her graduates became teachers, writers, and social activists.

In addition to the profits from running her school (it was a for-profit enterprise), she also made her living from the many textbooks and a book of poetry.

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