Emma Willard was one of the first people – if not the first— to believe women could have it all: career, family and happiness. Then, in 1838 at age 51, she almost proved herself wrong.
In September of that year, Willard made the biggest mistake of an otherwise remarkable life. She married Dr. Christopher Yates. It was a second marriage for both. And it was a disaster.
Despite her failed marriage, Emma Willard founded the first school of higher education for women. She also promoted the cause of women’s education in travels around the United States.
She was born in Berlin, Conn., on Feb. 23, 1787. She had 15 older siblings and one younger. Her father, Samuel Hart, had a successful farm, but he was far from wealthy. The Hart children had no illusions that they would inherit an easy life. Emma’s father had progressive views (to the point of unpopularity) and he encouraged his children to read and think.
Constantly reading and engaging in the dinner table debates her father encouraged, Emma advanced through grammar school. She then spent several years at academies for older children in Connecticut – not unheard of for girls, though not routine. By 17 she had started a summer school in Berlin. By the age of 20, the town of Middlebury, Vt., recruited her to set up school. Here she married her first husband, Dr. John Willard, and had a son.
Her husband’s nephew stayed with them while he attended Middlebury College, and he helped galvanize Willard’s views on education. Willard learned her nephew took classes in sciences, but girls couldn’t.
With her husband short of cash, Willard restarted her school. She also approached the president of Middlebury College and asked if she could take the science and math classes at the college. She wanted to add those subjects to the curriculum at her school for girls. His answer: No.
Undeterred, Willard taught herself advanced math and science so she could add these to her curriculum. It was hard work, but hard work was not off-putting to Emma Willard. She believed in a life of hard work. In a letter to her sister she cautioned her against being too happy. One of her sisters was falling in love, and Emma feared excess happiness would make her soft in mind and body.
“A degree of cold that would but brace the nerves of the hardy peasant, would bring distress or death to him who had been pampered by ease and indulgence,” she wrote. “This life is a life of vicissitude. A period of happiness, by softening and enervating the soul, by raising a thousand blissful images of the future, naturally prepares the mind for a greater or less degree of disappointment, and unfits us to bear it; while on the contrary, a period of adversity often strengthens the mind, and by destroying inordinate anticipation of the future gives relish to whatever pleasures may be thrown in our way.”
Willard soon began relentlessly writing to governors, congressmen and the president about a proposed plan for the “improvement of the education of females.” She would inform any who would listen about the terrible cost to society of giving a robust education to boys but steering girls toward finishing schools. While schools that educated girls were common, none offered the college level, sophisticated classes that Willard wanted.
By 1821, her efforts were rewarded. New York agreed with her point of view. In 1814, she created the Troy Female Seminary, and after some growing pains it was up and fully running by 1821. Dr. Willard encouraged his wife’s ambition, and moved with her to Troy, N.Y.
But the doctor was 28 years older than Willard, and in 1825, with the school growing by leaps and bounds, he passed away. Dr. Willard handled the administration and finances for the school, and his death left Emma shorthanded. But she never missed a beat.
A prolific writer, Willard wrote more than 10 books in her life on topics as wide ranging as history, medicine and geography. It was after Dr. Willard’s death that Emma truly came into her fame.
On Her Own
She would welcome the Marquis de Lafayette when his tour of America came to Troy, and would visit him in France when she traveled there, hearing his firsthand account of the French Revolution.
All the while, she schooled her students in her vision of the perfect woman: learned and serious, not given to flighty thoughts. Though religious, Emma Willard never pushed her Episcopalian beliefs on her students. She was modest in dress and disciplined in purpose. An able administrator for her home and perfectly capable of earning her own way in the world.
Though Willard strongly believed in women’s education, she declined to put her fame behind the women’s suffrage movement. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of Willard’s students, asked her to add her voice to support women’s suffrage, she declined. She wanted nothing to detract from her ability to promote education for girls, and she feared the hot-button issue of voting rights would do that.
Plus, Willard believed a strong man should, and could, shape a good home through sensible leadership. Her father had accomplished this, as had John Willard, her first husband.
It’s not clear what attracted Willard to her second husband, Christopher Yates, a physician in the Albany, N.Y. area. She enjoyed the company of men and liked to socialize and attend dances. But whatever the attraction, she consented to marry him.
Friends warned her off. He was not what he seemed, they said. For a time she broke off the engagement. But in 1838, her qualms resolved, the two married. Willard turned the school and its funds over to her son before the wedding. The newlyweds then moved to Boston—fashionable Louisburg Square— to make a home.
The two stayed together less than a year, but it took a bitter five-year battle for Willard extricate herself from the unhappy marriage. In the process, she destroyed Yates’ reputation. He only wanted her money, she said. The newspapers reported on his refusal to leave the house they had bought and about him giving Willard’s jewelry to his daughter. They also reported that he gambled away thousands of her dollars.
Willard petitioned the Connecticut Legislature for a divorce, and in 1843 she got it. Yates would die just five years later. Willard, meanwhile, returned to her school, somewhat chastened but not depressed. She considered herself fortunate to have escaped the marriage and retain family, friends and her reputation.
Willard continued to write and teach at the seminary. Her travels again took her to Europe, and she supported a school for girls in Greece with the royalties from her work. And her legacy remains alive today in the form of her school, renamed the Emma Willard School, and in the lives of many of the girls who graduated there.
Indeed, Willard’s views on womanhood took strong hold on her students. A 1979 analysis of her early students found them far more independent than the population in general. They had fewer children, less likelihood of getting married and far more likely to have a job outside the home. Graduates include Jane Fonda, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Much thanks to The Life of Emma Willard by John Lord. The Willard House in Middlebury By PenelopeIsMe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4363690. The Emma Willard School By UpstateNYer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7029000. This story was updated in 2020.