According to the numbers, women today nationally surpass men in educational achievement. To quote the Department of Labor, “Among the employed ages 25 and over, 37.1 percent of women have at least a bachelor's degree compared to 34.9 percent of men. Women with a bachelor's degree outnumber men by 1.6 million in the population as a whole.”
However this was not always the case. In early colonial America, it wasn’t considered necessary to educate girls past the elementary grades. They were encouraged to read and in Vermont, the schools in each town taught both boys and girls, but academies and colleges were reserved for men.
Then two women with strong ties to Vermont and New Hampshire changed the direction of education for women. Even though they were never given the opportunity to study at an advanced level themselves, they opened the doors of higher education for women.
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire in 1788, and watched her older brother go off to Dartmouth while she stayed at home to be educated by her parents. Even so, she became the local school teacher, married, gave birth to five children and when her husband died in 1822, she found employment as a writer and editor to support her family. She grew into one of the most influential women in America and her particular focus was other women. With Hale as an advocate, women began to study at female seminaries and academies and many contributed original material to her Godey’s Lady’s Book - which included essays by Emma Hart Willard.
In 1814, Emma Hart Willard began a school in Middlebury with the bold and brash idea that she could teach women the same material that men were learning at Middlebury College - including science and math. She was the first person in the nation to begin a school with that as a goal. She also wrote pamphlets and textbooks to help other towns develop schools for women. Yet when she requested state funding, Vermont was not receptive and she moved her school to Troy, New York hoping for New York state support that was not forthcoming there either – since the all-male legislature was concerned that education “would harm women’s health, create intellectual competition between the sexes, and disturb the social order.”
Hale is primarily remembered for writing the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and advocating for the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Emma Willard has a marker in Middlebury and a school in New York named for her, but as we return to our colleges and universities this fall, we should also remember Hale and Willard for encouraging women to get an education at the highest possible levels. Hale also published the works of women – thus giving them a platform for their ideas and advocacy. In so doing, Hale and Willard enabled female reformers of the 19th century to influence attitudes about abolition, temperance, and suffrage – ultimately providing greater opportunity for everyone.