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Emma Hart Willard, Educational Pioneer

One of the first things felt to be a real necessity by the early settlers on the "rock-bound coast" was an institution of learning. The matter was agitated some six years after the colonists landed, and eventually resulted in the opening of a College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, named for John Harvard who bequeathed seven hundred pounds towards its founding. Sons of the colony must be educated. Girls were just girls, they had no need of "book larnin'."

It took one hundred and seventy-four years more (at least five generations) to prepare the new country for another educational uplift. It came about in this way.

Emma Hart was born in Berlin, Connecticut, in 1787, February 23rd. She was of excellent parentage, and the beautiful home life of her childhood was manifested in her developing character.

"At the age of seventeen she opened a school in her native village, and with the beginning of that experience resolved to qualify herself for the vocation of a teacher. For three years she alternated teaching in her little school and studying as a pupil with Dr. Wells, who pronounced her a most remarkable scholar and a brilliant teacher, even at the age of her first experience. In 1807 she took charge of the female academy at Middlebury, Vermont.

"The early inhabitants of the town were noted for their enterprise and intelligence. Up to the close of the Revolutionary War the Champlain Valley had been for centuries the arena of savage warfare. But as soon as the cessation of hostilities would permit, the fertile lands were rapidly settled by a vigorous and high-minded class of young men and women, from the best families of Connecticut. There was in Middlebury an unusually large number of educated men, graduates of Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown. Their devotion to the cause of education is evinced by their establishment, before the beginning of the nineteenth century, three district institutions of learning—the grammar school, the female academy, and the college. The elder President Dwight of Yale, who made three visits to the town prior to 1810, has recorded his high appreciation of the character of the people and of their educational work."

Mrs. Willard, then Miss Emma Hart, has given emphatic testimony to the same effect, in a letter to her parents that first year. She says: "I find society in a high state of civilization, much more than any place I was ever in. The greater part of the beaux here are men of college education...... Among the elder ladies there are some whose manners and conversation would dignify duchesses."

These are hints of the social side of life for the preceptress of twenty. She had an intense relish for agreeable society, attending balls and parties during the week, and four meetings on Sunday. She was full of the joys of youth and health, but her strong brain never became giddy. In August, 1809, Emma Hart was married to Dr. John Willard.

Dr. Willard was twenty-eight years the senior of his wife, but nowhere in the annals of biography can we find a married life more happy than theirs was from first to last. Dr. Willard was a public-spirited man in many ways, a director in the State Bank, and very well to do, as the saying is. But a heavy bank robbery embarrassed all the directors, who lost greatly. Mrs. Willard came to the rescue of her husband. She had not taught for many years, but her teaching days were not over. Through the years of her married life she had taken up one subject after another: The 'dry' medical and physiological books of her husband's, that she might be in intelligent sympathy with his work; another time it was the study of geometry. Dr. Willard had a nephew in college, just across the street, who had his home with them. On one of his vacations she took up his Euclid, and was fascinated with the propositions from cover to cover. On the return of the college student, she submitted to an examination in that study, and he pronounced her learning correct. In this way the thirsting mind was being educated. Again it was moral philosophy, and Locke's Essay on the Understanding, and Kames' Elements of Criticism. She acquired all the history within reach; she wrote poems and essays, and painted after the fine manner of water colors of her time; and having scant literature on which to exercise her recent study of Kames, she criticized sermons.

From the standpoint of today, she was unconsciously preparing for the great work of her future. Mrs. Willard opened her home as a boarding school for girls, and the first year had all she could accommodate. This was an encouragement toward the working out of a plan that had been growing in her mind since early girlhood.

Her home was just across the street from Middlebury College, and having one of the students in her family she was daily and hourly in the atmosphere of intellectuality and learning.

"On opening her school, Mrs Willard taught the round of light and superficial studies that the age had prescribed for "females," but in a letter she writes, "My neighborhood to Middlebury College made me bitterly feel the disparity in educational facilities between the sexes." She had already made private excursions into the realms of solid learning, forbidden to her sex, and she was profoundly conscious of woman's capacity to understand all that was highest and best in the reaches of human thought. Why should the sister be deprived of the intellectual culture that is offered to the brother? Why will not the companionship of wedded life be purer and stronger if the mental training of the wife is comparable with that of the husband? Why will not the mother give to the world nobler sons and daughters if her own character be strengthened and refined by the highest education? These are hackneyed questions today, but they were new to the world when in 1815 they first throbbed in the brain of Mrs. Emma Willard."

These thoughts with their compelling power set her to work on "a plan for improving female education." It was slow work. For two or three years she wrote and rewrote, and tested some of the theories of her plan; formed a class in moral philosophy, another in philosophy of the mind, taking Locke's great work as text book. The professors of the college were fearlessly invited to attend her examinations, and to witness the proofs that "the female mind" could appreciate and apprehend the solid studies of the college course. She desired in turn to attend the examinations of the young men, to learn how they were conducted, and to see what attainments in scholarship were made in college. "It is humiliating to think that this privilege was refused, President Davis considering that it would not be a safe precedent, and it would be unbecoming in her to attend. But let us not blame too severely this staunch defender of the proprieties; he was simply guarding well-bred society from a terrible nervous shock."

In 1818 Mrs. Willard sent her plan to Governor Clinton, of New York. It was then for a Female Seminary involving state assistance; and in his next message the Governor strongly urged an appropriation in behalf of female education. An act was passed incorporating a Female Academy at Waterford, New York, and giving to female academies a share of the literary fund. Mrs. Willard's school was removed to Waterford the ensuing spring, and her "Plan" was published under the title of "An Address to the Public, Particularly to the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education." Its circulation in several states and abroad led eventually to the establishment of female seminaries aided by state appropriations. The hopes of legislative aid did not materialize, however, and in 1821 Mrs. Willard removed her Seminary to Troy, New York. By tax and subscription, four thousand dollars were raised by that city, and a suitable building erected, sixty by forty feet, three stories and a basement. The growth of the school in after years made it necessary, at two different periods, to erect additions, until the building was some three hundred feet long, facing a park of old elms and maples.

In 1825 Mrs. Willard lost her husband. In 1830-31 she was in Europe, and on her return entered into a scheme for educating a company of Greek girls for teachers in Athens. The sum of $2500 was raised for the purpose, $1100 being the profits on the sale of "Mrs. Willard's Journal and Letters" written and published for that charity.

In 1838 she resigned the Seminary to her son and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. John H. Willard. Suitable school works were a minus quantity in those days, and the energetic pioneer in the educational world wrote the first geography, and the first history of the United States, to meet that need in 1825, which she enlarged in 1852, and published at that date a volume of poems. In 1838 her output was "A Universal History in Perspective," and in 1844 a work "On the Circulation of the Blood." "A Chronographer of English History," 1845; "Chronographer of Ancient History," 1847; "Respiration and Its Effects," also "Last Leaves of American History," 1849; and "Astronomical Geography" and "Morals for the Young," in 1857.

When relieved of the arduous strain and responsibility of the Seminary, Mrs. Willard assisted in forming a number of schools for training teachers, normal schools they were; and hundreds of miles she drove in many states, with her messages of encouragement and helpfulness to small schools or groups of young teachers, whose letters had plied her with anxious and eager questions.

This indefatigable worker for the higher education of woman lived to see the Seminary she founded complete its fiftieth year of world-wide influence, and passed to the higher spiritual life from within its walls, at the age of eighty-three years.

She was the foremost instigator and influence for the higher education of womanhood. In that first fifty years of her Seminary, it was estimated that more than fifteen thousand young women were enrolled, a large majority of whom became teachers and directors, who carried the influence of the school far and wide, in Europe as well as in America. Emma Willard was the superior artist of womanhood, of character, and these few pages give the present generation, but a miniature of her activities in evolving the plan, and laying the foundation of the higher educational uplift of woman in the past century, upon which the twentieth is building the prodigious superstructure for the development and advancement of the whole world in the centuries to come.

The munificent gift of a million dollars from Mrs. Russell Sage has made possible a new and architecturally beautiful home for the school, to which it moved in 1913. The gift was in memory of the mother of Mrs. Sage, who was educated under the influence of the founder, and an expression of her own appreciation of the mind, the work, and the influence of Madame Emma Willard, not only for womanhood but for the world.