September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Girls Get a School
The autumn of 1821 saw the opening of two pioneering educational institutions: the Troy Female Seminary, in Troy, New York, and the English Classical School, in Boston. The former is generally called our country’s first secondary school for girls and the latter its first public high school. By showing that girls and the working class were capable of serious academic study, these two institutes led to a broadening of higher education and paved the way for today’s universal compulsory schooling.
The Troy school was run by the formidable Emma Willard, for whom it would be renamed in 1895. Formal education for girls was not unheard of at the time, but the instruction usually stopped at a very basic level. Girls whose families could afford the luxury of further schooling studied such genteel subjects as music, dance, drawing, embroidery, and the like, with perhaps a smattering of French. Willard had taught in academies of this type before her 1809 marriage, and in 1814, with her family in financial distress, she opened one of her own in Middlebury, Vermont.
Willard had become familiar with philosophy, science, and mathematics from a nephew who studied at Middlebury College. After teaching herself from his textbooks, she added these subjects to her curriculum. She also acquired a knowledge of physiology from her husband’s medical books. As her vision for female education grew, she eloquently petitioned New York’s governor to establish a public secondary school for girls that would teach science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, and history in addition to “housewifery” and the other traditional topics (except ornamental needlework, which Willard called a “waste of time”). The requisite state funds were not forthcoming, but in 1821 the citizens of Troy offered a building to house a private school, and in September ninety girls (onethird from Troy, the rest from as far away as Georgia and Ohio) began taking classes.
With course work in everything from zoology to geography to trigonometry to Greek, the seminary was more like a college than a secondary school. Many of its students went on to spread Willard’s educational ideas in schools of their own. By the time of Willard’s death in 1870, her goal of public education for girls had long since been fulfilled, and graduates of her seminary could even go on to higher studies, an option that had seemed outlandish half a century before.
Meanwhile, Boston was taking a first step to eliminate a different barrier to learning. Public secondary education dated back to 1635, when the Boston Latin School was founded, but as the name implies, that institute and its successors were meant for collegebound boys. Students with no use for dead languages had to rely on private or semiprivate boarding schools for instruction beyond the elementary level. The English Classical School (renamed English High School in 1824) was meant to “give a child an education that shall fit him for active life, and shall serve as a foundation for eminence in his profession, whether Mercantile or Mechanical.” Its threeyear curriculum included the usual arts and sciences as well as ethics, metaphysics, surveying, and bookkeeping. French and German were added later. In 1865 a commissioner sent by Britain’s Parliament called Boston’s English “the model school of the United States,” and though private academies still predominated, hundreds of public high schools had sprung up across the country, from Maine to New Orleans to San Francisco—including a few for girls.