“The object of this Address, is to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature.”
One of the earliest advocates for women’s higher education in the United States, Emma Hart Willard in 1819 published A Plan for Improving Female Education, both a call for reform and a blueprint for establishing a publically funded women’s seminary that would feature a more challenging curriculum and adhere to the high standards already expected of men’s colleges. She sent her plan to government leaders and representatives in the hope of gaining their support. Although she was ultimately unable to obtain the necessary governmental support or public funding, Willard established a school for women, the Troy Female Seminary, in 1821 with the support of prominent residents of Troy, New York. Her innovative plan, which became known as the Troy Plan, inspired many other educational reformers and was used to establish more than two hundred similar institutions for girls and women in the United States.
In the decades following the American Revolution, the United States began to lose some of its more radical republican ideals as its leaders worked to stabilize and formalize the new country’s institutions, political processes, and values. As a result, there was some backlash against the concepts of women’s rights and women’s education during this period. It was in this complex post-revolutionary era that Willard made a name for herself as a trailblazer for girls’ and women’s higher education. Willard not only advocated for the reform of women’s education but also established a seminary, or school, for young women. She was an active teacher and educational administrator throughout her life and was also the author of many foundational textbooks.
As a reformer, Willard focused on the right of women to a proper and advanced education similar to that available to men. She felt that many of the private schools for young women then in operation had less-than-ambitious curricula and was concerned that there were no regulations governing teachers at these schools. To address these problems, Willard proposed that the government regulate a new type of female seminary that would be established using public funds. Teachers would therefore be accountable to the government, and the overall quality of the education girls and women received would increase. Furthermore, Willard believed that improving women’s education would be beneficial to the United States and lead to its continued prosperity and success. At the time, mothers were responsible for the earliest education of their children, and Willard believed that an educated and virtuous mother would raise an educated and virtuous child. As such, she argued that educating the mothers of the next generation of Americans would be a prudent use of public funds.
What made Willard different from many other reformers of her time was her development of a workable plan for a model female seminary. She carefully considered the school’s ideal organizational structure and determined what types of courses should be offered, producing a logical, clear, and concise plan. Willard lobbied government representatives and other American leaders in order to garner support for the plan, a strategy rarely used by women at the time. But even as she was committed to reaching her goal, she knew that she had to take a cautious approach and avoid making any radical propositions that would alienate the very men who had the power to make her dream a reality. It should especially be noted that while Willard was a champion for women’s education, she was not advocating on behalf of all American women—the Troy Female Seminary would cater only to white women from the upper class.
Emma Hart was born in Berlin, Connecticut, in 1787, the sixteenth of Samuel and Lydia Hart’s seventeen children. Her father believed in educating his daughters, and so when Emma showed promise, her family supported her intellectual endeavors. She became a teacher by the time she was seventeen and in 1807 opened a school for girls in Middlebury, Vermont. It was there that she met local physician and widower John Willard, whom she married in 1809. Her husband had four children of his own, and the couple had their only son together, John, in 1810. Willard’s husband soon encountered financial problems, and to help contribute to her family’s income, Willard opened a school for young women in her home in 1814.
At this time, schools were often privately operated, and teachers such as Willard typically charged their students tuition. Although Willard personally benefited from this practice, she identified a problem with this model. As there were no relevant regulations, anyone who wanted to could set up a school for girls and young women, and they often did. Willard soon devised a plan in which seminaries for young women would be funded and regulated by government. She published her plan in the 1819 pamphlet An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. Willard sent a copy to each New York state legislator as well as to various congressmen, judges, and even past and current presidents. When the governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, invited her to move to New York to pursue her ideas, she readily agreed and moved her family. She first opened a school in Waterford, New York, but the promised funding did not materialize.
After this false start, Willard was approached by prominent citizens of Troy, New York, and promised four thousand dollars in funds to endow a new seminary for girls. In 1821, ninety girls enrolled in the new Troy Female Seminary. Willard spent the next years managing the school and writing textbooks. Her husband died in 1825, and although she remarried in 1839, the marriage lasted less than a year, as her new husband was abusive. Willard retired in 1838 and left the administration of the school to her son and daughter-in-law. In her retirement, Willard traveled, lectured, and wrote. In the 1840s, she was named a superintendent of public schools in Kensington, Connecticut. She died in 1870, and her lasting legacy, the Troy Female Seminary, was renamed in her honor in 1895.
Willard was one of the most prominent advocates for women’s higher education in the post-revolutionary, or early national, period of American history. Her pamphlet An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education, better known as A Plan for Improving Female Education,lays out both an argument for publicly funding young women’s higher education and a blueprint for a seminary that would provide female students with a more advanced academic curriculum. In essence, Willard wanted young women to have the same opportunities for educational advancement as young men had in American colleges, albeit with some gender-based modifications. She takes a logical, formal approach in building her argument but also tailors it to her audience, which in this case is composed of male legislators and other politicians. She assures her male readers that educated women will not move into the public sphere and interfere with male-dominated political processes and civic institutions. Instead she adopts an argument based on the ideal that has come to be known as republican motherhood, claiming that women must be educated so that they are able to educate their children, who will become the United States’ next generation of civic leaders. Willard’s writing also displays the influence of the so-called cult of true womanhood, or cult of domesticity, a similar philosophy that was emerging in the United States at the time. This belief held that there were two separate spheres of society: the domestic sphere, where women held primary responsibility, and the public sphere, where men dominated and were charged with governance of the country.
As many men would have found a radical argument in favor of women’s education off-putting, Willard needed to be careful not to alienate the very people she was trying to convince. These men had the authority to divert funds and make her plan a reality, and so she had to develop a strategic approach and argument that could persuade them of the worthiness of her plan while putting them at ease. Willard begins by simply stating her objective: to convince the New York legislature to fund a seminary for women. She felt this would be an excellent first step in a greater reform movement.
Her first line of argument is to explain the nature of this new school. She mentions the “absurdity of sending ladies to college” and assures the reader that a women’s seminary will be necessarily distinct from a male college, just as men and women are different in “character and duties.” She moves from this assurance into an explanation of the ways in which her plan will benefit men, cleverly appealing to her readers’ self-interest. She explains that even if her plan only improves “the American female character” by providing women with a better education, that alone would be a worthy goal. She then states that improving the character of women would also improve that of men, thereby elevating “the whole character of the community.” Here, Willard is establishing the foundation of her argument that a reformed and therefore better women’s education system will benefit the United States in general.
Willard goes on to reinforce this argument by addressing those who may not believe her previous point that the betterment of women will raise the character of the community. She points to mothers as her key example and begins by explaining the importance of the mother’s role in raising children. Children’s minds are “pliant” and can be easily guided, but mothers need the knowledge necessary to mold these young minds. She notes that it is difficult for women to acquire this knowledge and states it is far easier for men to obtain. Willard also notes that women’s education as it stands is too often devoted to “frivolous acquirements,” as opposed to the “enlarged and correct views” of educated men. She explains that women need to understand the “nature of the mind” in order to shape it appropriately. Again, this line of argument is in keeping with the philosophy of republican motherhood, in which women’s civic duty to the new republic is to prepare the next generation of Americans help the country develop and improve.
The next excerpted section features Willard’s discussion of problems and deficiencies in women’s education that her plan is intended to solve or eliminate. Willard begins this section by explaining why regulation of education by government is desirable. She contrasts education with trade, which she feels can regulate itself, while education cannot. Governments have provided this regulation to men’s educational institutions but not to women’s. In fact, Willard notes that women’s education has been left to “the mercy of private adventurers” and therefore has no common curricula or standards. Willard explains that in effect, female education has been left “to chance.”
Willard’s strong belief that the government should have “guardian care” of education stems from her belief that this will improve the quality of the education itself. She states that the positions of president or professor of a male college are considered positions of note “to which the eye of ambition is directed.” In contrast, “preceptresses” are often paid by and thus dependent on their students, which makes disciplining students difficult. To emphasize this point further, Willard provides the analogy of a parent who must care for his or her children but is also dependent on them to survive. In such a case, it would be difficult for the parent to exert any type of discipline over the children.
Next, Willard assures her readers that girls should be educated “chiefly” by women. Her use of the word chiefly is interesting, as her own sister studied under a man, and she did understand that sometimes young women needed a higher level of education that could only be gained by studying with a male instructor who had been granted educational opportunities that female teachers had not. But primarily, for the sake of “propriety,” women should be their instructors. This again reinforces the philosophy of the separate spheres and provides an example of the separation of the sexes in the new republic. Before this time, the United States had been a predominantly agrarian society in which men and women worked alongside each other in the fields and in the home. As the new country developed and industrialized, men began working outside of the home more often. As a result of this, work life and home life became separate and gendered.
After discussing the deficiencies of the current model of women’s education, Willard then logically turns to her thoughts on how education should be regulated and why. She again addresses her readers as government representatives who are charged with the betterment of society both in the present and in the future. Willard first equates character with the success, or “prosperity,” of a nation and reiterates her point that mothers are responsible for forming character. She goes on to make a clever circular argument. If mothers control character development, then the “government can control the characters of its future citizens” through mothers. Logically, then, the government should take on the responsibility of educating young women (future mothers) to ensure the country’s future success. The United States’ leaders could in this way control the formation of the characters of their future citizens by controlling the educational development of the future citizens’ mothers. Willard thus promotes her plan by strategically appealing to men who are responsible for the success of a young country. She reinforces her strategy by saying that it is the “duty” of legislators to support the development of the next generations of Americans, implying that they have little choice but to follow her plan.
After making this strong and logical point in favor of education for women, Willard takes care to deflect anticipated concerns of male legislators, who may worry that they will simply be providing resources to create a “college-learned lady.” Aware that many men would view such a woman as radical and quite possibly a threat to society, she therefore emphasizes that she is advocating “not a masculine education” but an education that is similar yet different. Willard demands the “respectability, permanency, and uniformity” of a men’s educational institution but notes that her proposed seminary must be adapted to take into account the “difference of character and duties” of men and women.
Up until this section of her plan, Willard has concentrated on providing a logical and clear argument for the need to reform women’s education and allow girls and young women to study more substantial subjects, similar to the curricula for men at the time. She has also argued for public funding and government regulation of women’s education. In the next section, Willard becomes an architect of her own vision and provides a blueprint or sketch of what a model women’s seminary might look like. By providing concrete details, Willard gives the legislators a clear idea of where the public’s money would go and tries to allay any fears that her seminary is actually a women’s college in disguise. She refers to her sketch as “imperfect” in an attempt to show both humility and submissiveness to her male readers.
Willard proposes four elements essential to the operation of the ideal women’s seminary: a building, a library, a governance structure, and a core educational program. The school building would need to include student lodgings, lecture rooms, and an area in which the domestic department could operate. A particularly important room is the library, which Willard notes should include not only books but also maps, globes, paintings, and musical instruments. A “competent” and “judicious board of trust” would handle the overall operation of the seminary and develop an appropriate and challenging curriculum.
Willard emphasizes the importance of the curriculum to the success of the ideal seminary. She wanted girls and young women to study topics similar to those studied by their male counterparts, but she also understood that because women lived in a separate sphere, they must study subjects distinct from men as well. As such, she explains that the curriculum should be separated into four primary areas of instruction: religious and moral, literary, domestic, and ornamental. This excerpt does not discuss the ornamental courses, but Willard proposes they include such topics as drawing, painting, music, dancing, and penmanship.
As the post-revolutionary United States was deeply Christian, it is no surprise that Willard wanted her female students to be well versed in religious and moral subjects. This would help build the all-important “character” that Willard wanted her students, who in her mind were all future mothers, to instill in their children. This component of the curriculum was so important that Willard proposes it be considered mandatory “by the laws of the institution.”
The second component of the curriculum is “literary instruction,” which according to Willard should encompass far more than merely literature. Willard is not concerned with detailing the subjects that should be covered in this department; rather, she is more concerned that girls and young women be granted the opportunity to study such topics. She mentions that she can find many people to advise the school regarding the courses that should be offered, but her real concern is that the government provide “the means of instruction” through both public funds and regulation. After reinforcing her key point once again, Willard goes on to detail “one or two of the less obvious branches of science” that might appeal to her students.
Here, Willard returns yet again to her favorite point. In order to fulfill the goal of educating character-building mothers, the ideal women’s seminary must include the study or philosophy of the human mind in its curriculum. A mother educated in these areas could use her knowledge to help mold her child’s mind and character. Willard’s second suggested subject is “natural philosophy,” or natural science. She opens by noting that this topic is not commonly taught to women, but she argues that it should be. Appropriately, she cites the example of a mother educating her child about nature. If educated, the mother can impart the correct knowledge, while if she is unaware of the laws of nature, she can implant erroneous information into the mind of her child that will need to be corrected later. Willard also mentions additional benefits of studying natural science, arguing that it will “heighten the moral taste” and “enliven piety” by providing a better understanding of the majesty of nature, of which God was believed to be the ultimate architect. She expresses her opinion that current textbooks would need to be altered, as some would be too advanced, some would have sections that would not interest girls and young women, and still others would need to include more appropriate subjects. She also felt that a new textbook on “housewifery” was needed. As Willard went on to become a textbook author of some note, she clearly took this observation seriously.
The next section details Willard’s thoughts on domestic instruction. As women were expected to marry and have children, Willard sought to prepare her students to manage happy, well-organized, and well-mannered homes and families. This emphasis is representative of the separation of work and home that was becoming typical in the United States at the time. For Willard, women who were not “good wives, good mothers, or good mistresses of families” were simply “bad members of society.” Worse, they would ultimately be responsible for injuring their communities.
Willard envisions the seminary’s domestic department operating under the supervision of a “respectable lady” who knows how to dress modestly and is “experienced in the best methods of housewifery.” The students would spend a portion of each morning with her, and any students who could not grasp the “spirit of neatness and order” would be expelled. Willard also notes that the senior students should tutor the younger ones and thus learn how to supervise and manage a household. She explains that emphasizing domestic education would prevent her students from becoming disconnected from their household duties, which could occur if they became too engrossed in their academic studies. She reassures her male readers that educating women will not cause them to abandon their domestic duties and their families; rather, education will prepare young women to be better wives and mothers. This point further reinforces Willard’s key argument that by educating women, the government of the United States would strengthen the country’s future.
Willard’s life was spent in the pursuit of furthering women’s higher education by lobbying the government to fund and regulate it. While never successful in her dream of establishing a publicly funded seminary for women, she did found the privately funded Troy Female Seminary. Troy was incredibly successful, and Willard’s Plan for Improving Female Education became a foundational document for women’s education in the United States and abroad. Her school educated some of the leading female minds of the period, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who fought for women’s suffrage, or right to vote, throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1871, Troy’s fiftieth anniversary, more than one hundred of the school’s alumnae had gone on to administer or establish their own schools. Renamed the Emma Willard School in 1895, the school continues to operate as a private independent school for girls and counts as its alumnae many prominent American women, including a number of successful business leaders, scientists, activists, and politicians.
Willard’s argument that the education of women is beneficial to society has continued to resonate with activists in the nearly two centuries since the publication of her pamphlet, fueling the continuing struggle for equal opportunities in higher education. Her goal of educating better mothers in order to raise better citizens, however, has lost its relevance. Within her time period, Willard made the argument that she felt would be accepted by the male legislators who could make the changes she desired. By avoiding even the suspicion of being a radical, Willard was able to navigate within male power structures and be seen as a conservative, nonthreatening woman. Perhaps it was the same strategy that led her to disapprove publicly of the activism surrounding the women’s suffrage movement and the antislavery movement later in her life.
By the end of her life, Willard had amassed a lasting legacy of female graduates and teachers, created a challenging curriculum, and laid the groundwork for publicly funded education for women. She had written some of the period’s most popular and enduring textbooks on the subjects of world and American history as well as geography. She stayed in touch with many of her graduates and traveled and lectured widely. A constant voice for women’s higher education in the nineteenth century, Willard changed both the way women learned and American society itself.
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