Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7ccbd9845f-6pjjk Total loading time: 0.255 Render date: 2023-01-27T21:31:01.873Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Emma Willard's Idea Put to the Test: The Consequences of State Support of Female Education in New York, 1819–67

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Nancy Beadie*
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle


“Civilized nations have long since been convinced,” Emma Willard declared to the New York legislature in 1818, “that education with respect to males, will not, like trade, regulate itself.” Thus Willard introduced her famous argument for state support of female education by observing the limits of market principles for promoting good schools.

Copyright © 1993 by the History of Education Society 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Willard, Emma, An Address to the Public: Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education (Middlebury, Vt., 1918; orig. 1819), 7.

2 Kaestle, Carl F. described independent proprietary schools in “Common Schools before the ‘Common School Revival’: New York Schooling in the 1790s,” History of Education Quarterly 12 (Winter 1972): 465500. According to Kaestle, thirty-one of the ninety-one known proprietors of such schools in New York City in 1796 were women. Ibid., 488, table 3. Natalie Naylor describes early coeducation in New York academies in ” ‘The Encouragement of Seminaries of Learning’: Early Academies on Long Island, New York” (paper presented at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting, Toronto, 1988). On late eighteenth-century schools specifically for women, see Lynne Templeton Brickley's excellent study, “Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy, 1792–1833” History of Education Quarterly (Ed.D.diss., Harvard University, 1985); and Hanft, Sheldon, “Mordecai's Female Academy,” American Jewish History 79 (Autumn 1989): 72–93. For general accounts of the state of female education in the early republic, see Cott, Nancy F., The Bonds of Womanhood: “Women's Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835 (New Haven, Conn., 1977), 101–25; Kerber, Linda K., Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980), 189–231; Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988), 242–89; Tyack, David and Hansot, Elisabeth, Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Schools (New Haven, Conn., 1990), 1–145; and Woody, Thomas, A History of Women's Education in the United States, 2 vols. (New York, 1966; orig. 1929).

CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 It appears that only New York and Pennsylvania had a system of regular annual state funding of academies which included female institutions. Woody, , History of Women's Education, 1:365–66.

4 Willard, , Address, 7.

5 Ibid., 9.

6 Ibid.

7 On republican ideology and college founding, see Kerber, Linda K., Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1970), 95134; Robson, David B., “College Founding in the New Republic, 1776–1800,” History of Education Quarterly 23 (Fall 1983): 323–41; and Sloan, Douglas, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (New York, 1971). On “Republican Motherhood,” see Kerber, , Women of the Republic; Bloch, Ruth H., “American Feminine Ideals in Transition: The Rise of the Moral Mother, 1785–1815,” Feminist Studies 4 (June 1978): 100–126; and idem, “The Gendered Meaning of Virtue in Revolutionary America,” Signs 13 (Autumn 1978): 37–58.

8 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Cannan, Edwin (New York, 1937), 681, cited in Cremin, Lawrence A., American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876 (New York, 1980), 128–33.

9 See Baym, Nina, “Women and the Republic: Emma Willard's Rhetoric of History,” American Quarterly 43 (Mar. 1991): 123; Brickley, , “Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy,” chs. 5 and 6; and Calhoun, Daniel H., “Eyes for the Jacksonian World: William C. Woodbridge and Emma Willard,” Journal of the Early Republic 4 (Spring 1984): 1–26. On the introduction of natural and moral philosophy at Middlebury and Litchfield in 1814, see Brickley, , “Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy,” ch. 7; and Lutz, Alma, Emma Willard: Pioneer Educator of American Women (Boston, 1964), 24.

CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 See Paley, William, Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Diety, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (Philadelphia, 1802; microform, Early American Imprints, no. 21356); and The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (New York, 1978; orig. 1785); Willard, , Address, 559–60.

11 On moral philosophy in American colleges, see Bryson, Gladys, Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1945); Sloan, , The Scottish Enlightenment; and Smith, Wilson, Professors and Public Ethics: Studies of Northern Moral Philosophers before the Civil War (Ithaca, N.Y., 1956).

12 Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1961; orig. 1690); Willard, , Address, 551.

13 Kerber, , “Daughters of Columbia,” and Women of the Republic; Rush, Benjamin, “Thoughts upon Female Education, Accommodated to the Present State of Society, Manners and Government in the United States of America” (Philadelphia, 1787), reprinted in Rudolph, Frederick, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic (Cambridge, Mass., 1965); Brickley, , “Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy,” 230–31.

14 Willard, , Address, 13.

15 See Miller, George Frederick, The Academy System of the State of New York (Albany, N.Y., 1922), 19–23; Bender, Thomas, New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginning of Our Time (Baltimore, 1987), 18–25; “An Act for granting certain Privileges to the College heretofore called King's College, for altering the Name and Charter thereof, and erecting an University within this State,” 1 May 1784, Laws of New York, 1774–1784 (1886), vol. 1, ch. 51, 7th sess., 686; and Seavoy, Ronald, The Origins of the American Business Corporation, 1784–1855 (Westport, Conn., 1982), 12–19.

16 On Willard's sense that her address was a failure, see Woody, , History of Women's Education, 1:345.

17 The first incorporated female academy was Waterford Female Academy, which Willard headed for two years. “An Act to incorporate a Female Academy in the village of Waterford,” 19 Mar. 1819, Laws of New York, ch. 52, 42d sess., 59–61; Lutz, Alma, Emma Willard: Daughter of Democracy (Boston, 1929), 6466, 80–82; and Lutz, , Pioneer, 27–29.

18 “An Act to institute an University within this State and for other Purposes therin mentioned,” 13 Apr. 1787, Laws of New York, 1774–1784, vol. 1, ch. 82, 10 sess., 434–41; and “An Act to authorize the sale of Lands appropriated for the promotion of Literature,” 13 Apr. 1813, in Laws of New York, ch. 199, 36th sess., 319–20. The New York Board of Regents is described in Miller, , Academy System, 19–30.

Google Scholar

19 Before 1816 all chartered academies were Regents academies. Under these arrangements, no female academies were ever chartered. In 1816 the legislature chartered its first academy independently of the Regents. That academy was Hartwick Seminary. The Waterford Female Academy was the second institution to receive a state charter without Regents status. Miller, , Academy System, 2425; “Acts of Incorporation, Academies,” in The Revised Statutes of the State of New York (Albany, N.Y., 1829–30), 3: 529–30.

20 For an account of the origins of Troy Female Seminary, see Lutz, , Pioneer, 3840; and Miller, , Academy System, 96. For a list of state-chartered academies, up to 1830, see “Acts of Incorporation,” in Revised Statutes. For a complete list of Regents academies, see Miller, , Academy System, table 17, 86–97.

21 Sizer, Theodore R., The Age of the Academies (New York, 1964). Broadly, the age of academies lasted from 1790 to 1860. For descriptions of these institutions in New York, see O'Neil, William Herring, “Private Schools and Public Vision: A History of Academies in Upstate New York, 1800–1860” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1984); Beadie, Nancy, “Defining the Public: Congregation, Commerce, and Social Economy in the Formation of the Educational System, 1790–1840” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1989); Kerns, Kathryn, “Farmer's Daughters: The Education of Women at Alfred Academy and University before the Civil War,” History of Higher Education Annual 6 (1986): 11–28; Hoag, Emily F., The National Influence of a Single Farm Community: A Story of the Flow into National Life of Migration from the Farms, U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin no. 984 (Washington, D.C., 1921); James, Thomas, “The Trajectory of a Local School: Community Traditions, State-Building, and the Quest for Educational Authority” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the History of Education Society, 26 Oct. 1991, Kansas City, Mo.); and Caruana, Louis B., “Oxford Academy, 1792–1896: The Private Years of a New York State Academy” (Ph.D. diss., Texas A & M University, 1986).

22 Annual Report of the Regents of the University of the State of New York (Albany, N.Y., 1845), 6473. Figures for the total number of academies chartered by the state, with or without Regents status, compiled from The Official Index to the Unconsolidated Laws, Being the Special, Private, and Local Statutes of the State of New York, 1778–December 31, 1919 (Albany, N.Y., 1920); “Acts of Incorporation,” 13 Apr. 1813, Laws of New York, ch. 202, 36th sess., sec. 10—Academies, 563; “Acts of Incorporation,” in Revised Statutes ; and French, J. H., Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State (Interlaken, N.Y., 1980; orig. 1860), 130–34. Figures for non-Regents academies are approximate.

23 Enrollment figures compiled from Report of the Regents (1845), schedule no. 2, 6473.

24 Ibid., 6473. Funds were awarded to academies on a per-pupil basis for the students “who are claimed by the trustees to have pursued for four months of said year, or upwards, classical studies, or the higher branches of English education, or both.” Quoted from the Regents instructions in Miller, Academy System, 26.

25 An academy earned funds only in proportion to its share of enrollments in its district, not in the state as a whole. In the first senate district, representing New York City, 30 percent of the total Regents students of both sexes attended an all-female academy; that academy therefore received 30 percent of the district's funds. One upstate district had no female academy to receive a share of the state fund. The proportion in other districts ranged from 8.7 percent to 19 percent. State fund figures compiled from Report of the Regents (1845), schedule no. 2, 6473.

26 The “System of Instruction” for Albany Female Seminary in 1836 is reprinted in Sizer, , The Age of the Academies, 168–74.

27 Ibid., 170.

28 “Announcement of Attica Female Seminary, 1835,” folder 37, box 1, and “Announcement of the LeRoy Female School and Teacher's Institute, 1836,” folder 38, box 1, Ingham University Collection, LeRoy Historical Society, LeRoy, N.Y. For background on Emily Ingham, see Wing, Richard L., “Ingham University, 1857–1892: An Exploration of the Life and Death of an Early Institution of Higher Education for Women” (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1990).

Google Scholar

29 Miller, , Academy System, 24.

30 On how the ideology of female education inspired women as teachers, see Scott, Anne Firor, “The Ever Widening Circle: The Diffusion of Feminist Values from the Troy Female Seminary, 1822–1872,” History of Education Quarterly 19 (Spring 1979): 2746; Allmendinger, David F., “Mount Holyoke Students Encounter the Need for Life-Planning, 1837–1850,” ibid., 27–46; and Kaufman, Polly Welts, Women Teachers on the Frontier (New Haven, Conn., 1984).

CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 For a survey of New York's actions regarding teacher education, see Miller, , Academy System, 131–71.

32 Ibid., 136–40.

33 Strober, Myra and Lanford, Audri Gordon, “The Feminization of Public School Teaching: Cross-sectional Analysis, 1850–1880,” Signs 11 (Winter 1986): 212–35.

CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Report of the Regents (1836), 124; ibid. (1838), 153; ibid. (1837), 121.

35 Ibid. (1842), 152, 158, 156, 148.

36 Miller, , Academy System, 150–55.

37 Ibid., 3459.

38 The female institutions that closed were Albany Female Seminary, Auburn Female Seminary, Batavia Female Academy, Catskill Female Seminary, Cooperstown Female Academy, Cortland Female Seminary, Penn Yan Female Academy, Schenectady Young Ladies' Seminary, Seward Female Seminary of Rochester, and Waterford Female Academy. Ibid., 5457.

39 Albany Female Academy and the Emma Willard School (Troy Female Seminary) exist to this day as private secondary institutions. Utica Female Academy was transformed in 1871 into a proprietary institution and closed in 1908. I am indebted to the Oneida County Historical Association for compiling this information.

40 Rutgers' transformation and decline can be followed through the Report of the Regents (1867–94).

41 Folders 24, 31, and 34, box 1, and Minute Book of the Trustees, Ingham University, 1852–82, box 2, Ingham University Collection.

42 The philanthropists were Simeon Benjamin for Elmira College; Matthew Vassar for Vassar College; and Henry Wells for Wells College. See entries for Matthew Vassar and Henry Wells in the Dictionary of American Biography (New York, 1936), 19:230–31, 639–40; and Barber, W. Charles, Elmira College: The First Hundred Years (New York, 1955). Miller, , Academy System, 55.

43 Miller, , Academy System, 53. Until 1875 there were still more academies than tax-supported high schools reporting to the Regents.

44 That Albany Female Academy and LeRoy Female Seminary shared this plan of instruction has already been noted. Thomas Woody's count of the frequency with which various subjects were offered at 162 female academies before 1871 provides a basis for generalization from those cases. After the basic subjects of arithmetic, English grammar, and reading, the 9 most frequent of 161 total subjects listed were natural philosophy (123); rhetoric (121); astronomy (116); geography (113); chemistry (112); plane geometry (110); moral philosophy (106); botany (101); and mental philosophy (100). Woody, , History of Women's Education, 1:563–55. On (mostly failed) experiments with science courses at male colleges, see Guralnick, Stanley M., Science and the Antebellum American College (Philadelphia, 1975). On the strong tradition of science education established at female institutions, see Warner, Deborah Jean, “Science Education for Women in Ante-bellum America,” Isis 69 (Mar. 1978): 58–67; Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory, “In from the Periphery: American Women in Science, 1830–1880,” Signs 4 (Autumn 1978): 81–96; Rossiter, Margaret W., Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Baltimore, 1982), 1–28; and Shmurak, Carole B. and Handler, Bonnie S., ” ‘Castle of Science’: Mount Holyoke College and the Preparation of Women in Chemistry, 1837–1941,” History of Education Quarterly 32 (Fall 1992): 315–34.

45 The writer of the Genesee Wesleyan annual bulletin for 1836 rebuked parents for the fact that “so few females are permitted to enjoy the privilege of a thorough and entire course of instruction.” “Bulletin of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, 1836,” Genesee Wesleyan Seminary Collection, Syracuse University Archives, George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y. Despite the considerably larger number of male students than female at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in that year (232 males, 144 females), female students of natural philosophy exceeded males 85 to 64 in 1834. Similarly, in chemistry females outnumbered males 33 to 20; in botany, 11 to 0; in astronomy, 7 to 0; in rhetoric, 50 to 48; in history, 56 to 11; in ancient geography, 13 to 0; in French, 23 to 10; and females constituted the entire enrollment in the “ornamental branches.” Males, by contrast, dominated in Latin, algebra, Greek, Hebrew, bookkeeping, trigonometry, various branches of applied geometry (for surveying), and navigation. “Bulletin of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, 1834,” Genesee Wesleyan Seminary Collection.

46 Reed, Harvey S., “The Period of the Academy in Connecticut, 1780–1850” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1942), 7779.

Google Scholar

47 “Bulletin of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, 1850,” Genesee Wesleyan Seminary Collection.

48 On taxpayers' concerns regarding high schools, see Tyack, and Hansot, , Learning Together, 118–19, 137; Bowen, M. Lucille, “The Rochester Free Academy,” in The History of Education in Rochester: Selected Articles on Rochester History, ed. McKelvey, Blake (Rochester, N.Y., 1939), 79, 85; Katz, Michael B., The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); and Vinovskis, Maris, The Origins of Public High Schools: A Reexamination of the Beverly High School Controversy (Madison, Wis., 1985). As early as 1848 the academy student population in New York began to shift to being female dominated. Report of the Regents (1848), 91. For discussion of higher female enrollment and performance in high schools, see Rury, John L., Education and Women's Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America, 1870–1930 (Albany, N.Y., 1991), 11–48; and Tyack, and Hansot, , Learning Together, 114–45.

Google Scholar

49 Bowen, , “The Rochester Free Academy,” 8890.

50 See, for example, Palmieri, Patricia, “In Adamless Eden: A Social Portrait of the Academic Community at Wellesley College, 1875–1920” (Ed.D. diss., Harvard University, 1981).

Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Emma Willard's Idea Put to the Test: The Consequences of State Support of Female Education in New York, 1819–67
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Emma Willard's Idea Put to the Test: The Consequences of State Support of Female Education in New York, 1819–67
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Emma Willard's Idea Put to the Test: The Consequences of State Support of Female Education in New York, 1819–67
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *