More than Petticoats: Remarkable Vermont Womenby Deborah Clifford
Moving portraits of twelve courageous women who made Vermont what it is today More than Petticoats: Remarkable Vermont Women profiles the lives of twelve of the state's most important historical figureswomen from across Vermont, from many different backgrounds and from various walks of life. With enduring strength and compassion, these remarkable women broke through social, cultural, or political barriers to make contributions to society that still resonate today. Read about:• Lucy Terry Prince, the legendary African American poet, pioneer, and public speaker who made an arduous journey on horseback to plead for an end to her family's harassment• Emma Willard, who endured harsh winters, financial fiascos, and meddlesome men as one of America's first advocates of women’s education• Abby Maria Hemenway, who defied the incredulity of Middlebury College scholars to compile the history of every town in the state• Shirley Jackson, the celebrated writer who dared to expose the dark underside of New England small town lifeEach of these women demonstrated an independence of spirit that is as inspiring now as it was then. Read about their extraordinary lives in this captivating collection of biographies.
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EMMA WILLARD (1787-1870) EDUCATING WOMEN FOR THE REPUBLIC It was high summer when twenty-year-old Emma Hart first glimpsed the town of Middlebury. The year was 1807, and she'd been invited by the trustees of the local academy for young ladies to take charge of their school. This bustling manufacturing community in the Champlain Valley had recently been crowned by a small college, and was one of the fastest growing towns in the state. Though many log cabins still lined the village streets, Middlebury society, according to this young schoolteacher from Connecticut, was a dazzling affair. "I find myself in a very high state of cultivation," Emma wrote her parents soon after her arrival, "much more than any other place I was ever in. The beaux here are, the greater part of them, men of collegiate education. . . Among the older ladies, there are some whose manners and conversation would dignify duchesses." Miss Hart's School had thirty-seven pupils when the term opened on August 20 in the academy building on Seymour Street. But Emma soon discovered that her job as preceptress was not going to be easy. For one thing her days were oppressively long. School began at nine with a break for dinner at one, then resumed until late afternoon. After classes had ended, Emma barely had time to go home and change before she was due out again, either for a religious meeting at the home of one of her pupils, or at a weekday service held by one of the four Protestant churches in town. Though she felt she had to attend these, she was frustrated at finding herself at the center of sectarian rivalries among her students' families, and confessed to her parents that "to please all is impossible." Emma endured other difficulties that first year as preceptress, including the hardship of a particularly frigid Vermont winter. As she recalled many years later, "the weather was very cold, with frequent storms and much snow." Classes were held in a large oblong schoolroom whose only source of heat was a small fireplace on the north wall. When the cold was too much to bear, Emma would call her pupils onto the floor, and arrange them by twos for a country dance. Then the girls who could sing "would strike up some stirring tune," and Emma, taking one of the students as her partner, would lead the dance, "and soon have them all in rapid motion." Only when everyone was warm did school exercises resume. Despite the difficulties she experienced during her first year of teaching in Middlebury, her school proved a decided success. By the spring of 1808, enrollment had almost doubled in size, and included pupils from different parts of the state. Emma Hart's career as an educator was well launched. This native of Berlin, Connecticut was born on February 23, 1787. She was the sixteenth of seventeen children who made up the family of Samuel Hart and his second wife, Lydia. "If the baby had been a boy," her father told the minister who was to christen her, "we would have named him for General Washington, but under the circumstances she will be baptized as Emma." Whether Samuel Hart had made similar pronouncements at the christening of each of his daughters or not, he would develop a very special relationship with this one. For Emma was a remarkably precocious child. An avid reader with a great hunger for knowledge, by the age of twelve she had taught herself geometry, a subject girls of the time were deemed incapable of mastering. Samuel Hart apparently encouraged all these scholarly efforts, telling Emma to ignore those who wished to confine women to a life of intellectual inferiority. He enjoyed discussing philosophy with her, and as she grew older he would often call her from her domestic pursuits to share a passage from a book he was reading or an essay he had written. In 1802 Emma enrolled at the Berlin Academy. Two years later, at the age of fifteen, she was conducting classes for older children in her father's house. Then in 1806 she was given charge of the winter term at the Academy. Within the year Emma Hart's excellent reputation as a teacher had spread abroad, and in the spring of 1807 she received three offers to teach. One came from Middlebury, another from Hudson, New York, and the third, which she took, came from Westfield Academy in Massachusetts. She probably chose Westfield because of the school's excellent reputation. Hired as an assistant teacher, Emma soon decided that this subordinate position "cramped her abilities," and she left there after a term. With the offer from Middlebury still open, she decided to move to Vermont. During her first term as preceptress in Middlebury, Emma had attracted the admiration of one of the town's leading citizens, Dr. John Willard. A physician and director of the Vermont State Bank, Willard was a religious liberal and a staunch supporter of women's education. When Emma had struggled that first summer with denominational rivalries that threatened the very existence of her school, Willard had come to her defense, relishing this young woman's skill and determination in outwitting her critics. Emma, in turn, was equally drawn to this older man who so willingly took her part, and the two were married on August 10, 1809. At the time John Willard was a prosperous man of fifty, who had four children from two previous marriages. But he proved a loving and supportive husband for Emma. Their only child, a son, John Hart Willard, was born September 10, 1810. Once the Willards were married, Emma had no need to earn a living, so she resigned her position as preceptress and settled comfortably into a domestic routine in the large brick house her husband had recently built, which still stands across Main Street from the Middlebury College campus. While Emma herself was quite content with her new life, the proximity of this small men's college made her "bitterly feel the disparity between the two sexes," arousing in her an awareness of the advantages young men possessed in their pursuit of higher studies. This sense of women's intellectual deprivation was further heightened when her husband's nephew boarded with them while attending Middlebury. Emma listened eagerly as he described his courses. She read his textbooks and even succeeded in passing an exam he gave her. Emma and John Willard had been married for only five years when in 1814 financial disaster struck. It began with a robbery of the Vermont State Bank by someone using a false key. Suspected by the public of implication in the robbery, John Willard and the other bank directors were held personally liable and had to repay the $28,000 loss. Although the discovery years later of the false key in the bank's attic ultimately vindicated the directors, in the immediate aftermath of the robbery John Willard was forced to put heavy mortgages on his land. This severe financial reversal had one positive outcome, however. It gave Emma a socially respectable reason for opening her own boarding school for girls in their roomy brick house. As she later recalled, "my leading motive was to relieve my husband from financial difficulties. I had also the further motive of keeping a better school than those about me." If the Willards suffered a loss of social prestige resulting from John's suspected role in the bank robbery, enrollment in Emma's school gave little indication of it. When it opened in May 1814, her "Boarding School for Young Ladies," as it was initially called, included seventy pupils, forty of whom were boarders. The curriculum included English grammar, geography, drawing, painting, and embroidery. Only gradually did Emma introduce the advanced subjects she deemed essential to women's higher education. When no dire effects followed from teaching her students mathematics, including geometry, she felt more forcefully the injustice of denying women the opportunity to obtain the best education available. Hoping to prove that young women were quite as capable of doing college level work as young men, she asked that her students be allowed to audit courses at Middlebury College. This appeal, however, was denied by the college authorities. So was her request that she be allowed to attend examinations in order to familiarize herself with college teaching methods and standards. Such a presence, she was told would be "unbecoming" and might set a bad example. In the end it was left to Emma herself to devise her own courses and teaching methods, and she dove energetically into the work. Long days of instruction were followed by nights spent studying new subjects, which, as she mastered them, were gradually introduced into the curriculum. At the same time Emma began developing what was essentially a teacher-training course. For the students who completed this, she found places and encouraged them to take charge of their own schools as soon as possible. It was in Middlebury, she later remembered, that "the stream of lady mathematicians took its rise." Anxious to show that hard study would not undermine the health of her pupils, Emma included dancing and plenty of rest as part of their schedule. In the evenings she read aloud, and encouraged lively discussions on a variety of topics. This stimulating regime stood in sharp contrast to the rigid teaching methods of the day and helped to ensure the popularity of her school. Conscious of her own success, Emma continued to wonder why nothing was "ever done by the public to promote [the education] of females?" Of course, part of the answer to that question lay in the contempt and hostility which the very idea of learned women aroused in some members of the opposite sex, including the authorities at Middlebury College. They feared, Emma realized, "that if women's minds were cultivated, they would forget their own sphere, and intrude themselves into that of men." The solution, therefore, was to find a way of developing women's minds that did not arouse male opposition, and to justify such an education not simply by proving that it was possible but also by showing -- as a number of other women were doing at the time -- that it was necessary for the future good of the new American nation. Sometime after successfully establishing her own school, Emma began to put these thoughts together in a pamphlet entitled A Plan for Improving Female Education. Published in 1819, it took her nearly three years to compose her arguments for this piece, which declared that the future of the nation's prosperity depended on educating women. This argument had been around for some years, but Willard's suggestion that public money should be spent to support higher education for women was a completely new concept. Dismissing the current mode of educating girls, Emma Willard's Plan underscored the importance of bringing them "to the perfection of their moral, intellectual, and physical nature." It took Emma some time to come up with a suitable name for her ideal school. She couldn't call it a college, since giving an educational institution for young women such a name would have been dismissed at that time as an absurdity. Then one Sunday she attended Middlebury's Congregational Church and heard the pastor, Thomas Merrill, say a prayer "for our seminaries of learning." No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than Emma realized she had the name for her school. "Female Seminary" not only sounded properly dignified, it was also unlikely to arouse male hostility. By the time the Plan was published in 1819, Emma and her family were living in Waterford, New York, and she sent a copy to Governor DeWitt Clinton, hoping that his state might decide to support a program of publiclyfunded schools for girls. Earlier she had tried to get Governor Van Ness of Vermont to agree to opening a female seminary in Burlington, but that plan had fallen through. Meanwhile, Governor Clinton was enthusiastic enough about her proposal to invite her to come to Albany and explain her Plan to a group of legislators. Aware of the unconventionality of a woman speaking before a large group of men, Emma dressed carefully for the occasion. While her gracious bearing and intelligence succeeded in impressing her listeners, in the end they gave her no money. Meanwhile, Emma found herself wooed by a group of enthusiastic and progressive citizens from the manufacturing town of Troy, New York, whose generous offer of support enabled her to open her Troy Female Seminary there in September, 1821. So extensive was Emma's reputation as a teacher, her ninety students hailed from all over the Northeast and from as far away South Carolina and Georgia. By 1831 the Troy Female Seminary had more than three hundred students, nearly half of whom were boarders and the rest day students. So popular was the school that it was quickly evident that it could succeed without state aid. Emma, meanwhile began writing successful textbooks, one on geography, and the other on American history. Both were widely hailed and sold well, ensuring their author's financial independence. In her Troy Seminary, Emma continued the practice she had begun in Middlebury of training teachers, and she had soon established a flourishing teacher placement agency. What began as an informal network of alumnae, by 1837 had become the Willard Association for the Mutual Improvement of Teachers, whose members were able to spread her educational methods to other parts of the country. While Emma expected that most of her students, even those who taught for a time, would eventually marry and leave their teaching days behind, she also understood that domesticity was not for everyone. As she observed in her Plan, some “ambitious spirits” cannot be confined to the household; they need a theater in which to act. So might she have described her own aspirations. But she meant it as a justification for encouraging young teachers to become professionals in their field, and use their talents and energies to establish and administer academies all over the country and even beyond. In sum, she had come to see and treat teaching as a serious professional vocation for women. Dr. John Willard was in his sixties when he and Emma moved to Troy. He would die there in 1825. But until his last days, he gave Emma and her school his full support, making himself indispensable as business manager and school doctor. In 1838, after turning the running of the Seminary over to her son John's wife, Sarah Lucretia Hudson, Emma returned to Connecticut. There she made an unhappy marriage with Dr. Christopher Yates, who turned out to be a fortune-hunter and a gambler. In less than a year Emma had left him, and by 1844 she was back in Troy, living in a small brick house on the eminary grounds. Known by the students and faculty as "Madame Willard," to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law who was head of the school, Emma was kept informed of every happening and served as a commanding presence at all major school events. Later she moved into an apartment on the ground floor of the Seminary building, where she could be near her son and his family. In her last years she called the students her "granddaughters," and when attending school receptions, occupied a big armchair as the girls processed by her, two by two, curtsying as they passed. She died on April 15, 1870, loved and revered by the Seminary community and celebrated both nationally and internationally. In 1895, the Troy Female Seminary changed its name to the Emma Willard School, and remains to this day a highly respected boarding academy for girls.
Meet the Author
Deborah Pickman Clifford has lived in Vermont since 1966. A graduate of Radcliffe College, she has published three biographies of nineteenth-century American women: Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, and the Vermont historian, Abby Maria Hemenway. Back in the 1980s she served as the first woman president of both the Vermont Historical Society and the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury. She has also written and lectured widely on the history of Vermont women. Most recently, she and her husband, Nicholas, are the joint authors of The Troubled Roar of the Waters: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927-1931, published by the University Press of New England in 2007. Residents of New Haven, a small town near Middlebury, the Cliffords have four daughters and six grandchildren.
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