Education of Women in the United States

The period of preparation from 1830 to 1865 was a time marked by a ferment of of new ideas both here and in Europe. In the United States it was a period of Jacksonian democracy and westward expansion, of transcendentalism in literature and thought, of the anti-slavery agitation and the early women’s rights movements. In Europe it was the period of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, of the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, of the winning of Italian independence, and of wide political, economic, and social reforms in England. In such an age belief in the higher education of women was an outgrowth of other beliefs held to be far more important.


Catherine BeecherThe substantial beginnings made in the United States are to be fully appreciated only when viewed against the background of the scattering and superficial education commonly given to girls of the day. Emma Hart WillardBefore 1830 Emma Willard and Catherine Beecher had made striking protests against the accepted type of education for girls, and had established schools to carry out their ideas. In 1834 Mary Lyon began her personal campaign throughout Massachusetts for funds with which to establish a seminary of a non-proprietary basis, governed by a board of trustees and buttressed by invested funds, and 1837, the year in which Mount Holyoke Seminary was opened by her, is a significant date in the history of higher education for women.

From this time on, the founding of seminaries and academies for girls went on apace. The founding of Vassar College in 1865 fulfilled Mary Lyon’s dream and effort of thirty years before. In 1870 Wellesley College was chartered, and a year later Smith College, endowed by the will of Sophia Smith of Hatfield, MA, with nearly $400,000.

An 1819 a treatise entitled “A Plan for Improving Female Education.” It was an able exposition of excellent ideas and found favor with Governor John Clinton, resulting in the establishment in that year of a seminary for girls at Waterford, NY, which was incorporated and was partially supported by the State. Mrs. Willard removed to Troy, NY, in 1821 where she was presented by the city with a suitable building, henceforth known as the Troy Female Seminary, which served as the Vassar College of New Your State a half century before the establishment of the institution at Poughkeepsie. The seminary not only gave women collegiate education, but it trained large numbers of women teachers. After conducting this school for seventeen years, Mrs. Willard resigned her duties into the hands of her son, and gave herself to educational missionary work. During the years 1845 and 1847 she travelled [sic] 8,000 miles by packet boat, stage coach, and private carriage through the States of the South and West, agitating and counseling in the matter of public education.

Her European influence extended to the founding of a school for girls in Athens, Greece, and in 1854 she was present at the World’s Educational Convention in London.

Emma Willard is one of the most prominent figures in the history of higher education for women in the United States. She was not only an advocate of advancement but a practical worker for it, and brought to her task great earnestness of purpose, coupled with high abilities and executive capacity. Her school books were widely used and were translated into European and Asiatic languages. She also wrote some excellent verse, which includes the famous Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep.

A statue was unveiled to her memory at Troy in 1905.


Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.


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