Emma Hart Willard: Philhellene, Educator, Founder of First Teachers’…
As another note to how Hellenic Heritage dovetails with Women’s History month, we offer you Emma Hart Willard. Born to an Evangelical minister in Connecticut, 15th in a family of 16, Emma was an ardent advocate for Greece’s independence during the early 19th century. She was active in coordinating the efforts of many women’s civic groups to gather funds, build awareness, and help spread the Greek cause of nationalism. In fact, thanks to a lecture by Dr. Angelo Repousis, professor of History at Temple University in honor of Greek Independence Day hosted at Holy Trinity Cathedral Center this March 25th, the spirit of Philhellenism was quite remarkable in the United States during the 19th century. (Did you know that Thomas Jefferson spoke and wrote Greek, and even had extensive correspondence with Korais, in Greek!?) This period of American history was noted by a revival of Greek letters and ideals; this is when many of the cities in America were baptized with Greek names, i.e. Troy, Ithaca, Athens, Corinth, etc. The romaniticized ideal was to revive the ancient Hellenic civic ideals, and bring the arts and letters back to Greece as it was just fledgling out of the shackles of Ottoman occupation.
While you can find history books with notable American men who have served the cause of Hellenism(e.g. Eric Everett, president of Harvard University, who founded many Greek committees to help the Greek revolution and George Jarvis the first American to actually join the Hellenic army during the War of Independence) , Emma Hart Willardstands out not just as a footnote. In 1827 she founded the Troy School, a secondary school in upstate New York in the town of the same name. Very active in the Greek cause for independence, she coordinated many fund-raisers and “waved the Greek flag” to aid the campaigns back in Greece. In 1834, she moved to the newly established modern state of Hellas and established the first school in Greece to educate Greek female teachers.
In an article entitled “The Trojan Women: Emma Hart Willard and the Troy Society for the Advancement of Female Education in Greece,” Rempousis recounts: “There, in 1833, in the city by the same name, a small group of women led by Willard embarked on an ambitious campaign to establish, in Greece, a female seminary to train women teachers, making the women of the United States, not the ancients, the wellspring of western civilization. . . A leader in women’s education and founder of the Troy Female Seminary (the first school to offer higher education for young women in the United States), Willard saw an opportunity to impart to the struggling Greeks, recently emancipated after four centuries of Turkish rule, some of the benefits in education that she had given to American women.” (Rempousis,JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC (Fall 2004), 445-446).
Willard was a pioneer in the field of education for women even in this country. She penned and pushed A Plan for Improving Female Education, a widely admired and influential proposal intended to win public support for girls’ schools. She petitioned the NY State legislature at the time headed by DeWitt Clinton to allow for public money to go into these girl schools. Even though she did not get that much support from the legislature, she was encouraged by DeWitt Clinton to move from Vermont to Troy, New York where she eventually founded the Troy Female Seminary which eventually was named in her honor. (It is an exclusive private school today which prides itself on the benefits of all-girl education.)
As far as the efforts to establish a school for women in Greece, the historian gives pause: Why would an active Protestant American matron choose to help in relief efforts overseas when there were plenty of causes to take up at home (abolitionism, feminism, prohibition) and for a society that outwardly degraded women? Rempousis argues that Willard had a veiled purpose, not just that educating Greek women was a charitable cause reinforcing her belief that a civilization was only as good as how well its women were, that it was necessary for women to be educated as they provided the moral backbone of the American republic. As he states, “Quite possibly, Willard and her friends may have had a more veiled objective than simply educating Greek women. While the women of Troy certainly shared the commitment of their generation to recreate the glory of Periclean Athens in the “woods of America,” their vision of “a brighter Hellas” would include a place for the women. And what better way to accomplish that feat than by first “emancipating” the daughters of Greece?”
So by mixing the causes of feminism and Greek emancipation through education, Willard and her Trojan women were able to start a movement that aided in the efforts to liberate the modern Greek state from the oppression of the Turks and used the symbol of the Greek woman as slave as a powerful rhetorical tool. In fact, there was a white marble statue by the sculptor Hiram Powers named “The Greek Slave” that depicted a beautiful young Greek girl in chains. Willard and her American sisters actually referred to their Greek sisters as being slaves. The connection moved powerful enough to move even males to the cause for female empowerment because a white maiden who was being sold as a sex slave to indulge the sexual appetites of her Turkish captor really shocked and disturbed the American audience. On several occasions Willard and her friends specifically describe their Greek “sisters” as slaves. By employing this critique of the “enslavement” of Greek women, the Troy women could also have been trying to draw attention to their own enslavement as wives.” (Rempousis, 447).
Her mission in Athens, established by the Society for the Advancement of Female Education in Greece, taught women from all over Greece, serving a full class of 500 at one time. So successful was it that it even drew the attention of the newly established government that ” issued a decree encouraging female education in Greece and announced its intention of paying the tuition of twelve students chosen from the different provinces. For Willard, this was more than even she expected. At no time in recorded history, she boasted, “has any government in that part of the world . . . made a public decree whose object was the special improvement and elevation of the female character.” For Willard, the success of the female seminary in Greece validated her lifelong mission to improve the lot of women, both at home and abroad.” (474-475).
As both American and Greek women, we are indebted to this pioneer who sought to increase the education for girls on both sides of the Atlantic.
For a more detailed account of Emma Hart Willard’s actions in Greece, pick up a copy of Rempousis’ book Greek-American Relations from Monroe to Truman, a link you can find through our Greek Book Corner.