The Emma Willard school is recognized as the country's first secondary school for females. This school in Troy New York was the product of Emma Willard's pioneering efforts to expand educational opportunities for women. Emma Willard was a leader in women's education; embarking on the production of the Emma Willard school (known then as Troy Female Seminary) in in 1819, she expressed her concern for expanding women's education by writing a paper titled A Plan for Improving Female Education and sent the letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe. She caught the attention of Governor DeWitt Clinton of Troy, New York. The town raised taxes to endow the school with 4,000 and the Troy Female Seminary opened in September 1821.
Born Emma Hart Willard in 1787, she was the daughter of a prosperous farmer who was also a liberal thinker. He saw at a young age Emma's natural abilities and encouraged her studies. Her father included her in his conversations about topics that were typically only for men such as philosophy and politics. The school system did very little for Willard, for that era offered only a limited amount of education to girls. At twelve, she began teaching herself geometry and at age fifteen, she entered the Berlin Academy and within a few years, began teaching there. After a short period of time, Willard was offered a position of principal at the women's academy in Middlebury, Vermont.
In 1809, she married the town physician Dr. John Willard. She opened her own school, The Middlebury Female Seminary in 1814 to provide advanced studies for young women who were denied by colleges. Her paper, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education (1819) was a much admired and influential proposal to get public support for advanced education for young women. This paper was how she caught the attention of the governor of New York at the time, Governor DeWitt Clinton. He raised taxes so the school count be built. In 1921, she moved to Troy, New York where she opened the Troy Female Seminary. The school was renamed after Emma Willard in 1895.
In the first year of the school's opening, ninety girls enrolled. The school was expensive, costing around $200 annually for room, board and tuition. Because of the high cost of attending the school, only affluent families could afford to send their daughters. The amount of women who enrolled showed how profoundly young women wanted a real education.Wealthy families from all over the nation sent their daughters to the Troy Female Seminary. The curriculum at Troy Seminary was even more advanced than some boys’ academies, including subjects like astronomy, botany, physiology, and geology. Middle class women could not afford this education until 1837 when Mary Lyon opened Mount Holvoke Female Seminary.
Emma Willard's husband died in 1825, four years after the school began. In 1839, Willard took a trip to Europe where she was surprised to find inferior schools for women. She published a book in 1833, Journal and Letters from France and Great Britain, and used the proceeds to fund a school in Greece. In 1838, Willard left the Troy Female Seminary to her son and daughter-in-law, but still remained active in women's education. She married again in 1839, but the relationship was an unhealthy one. She was granted a divorce in 1843. Willard died in 1870 and the Troy Female Seminary was renamed in her honor on its 25th anniversary.