In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts.
In 1800, Americans spent, on average, merely four months and two days in school over the course of their entire life. By 1840, this length of time had more than doubled, as educational reform and access to schooling increased significantly. Women, in particular, had growing opportunities throughout the 1800s as schools dedicated to female education spread throughout the country. As an early reformer, Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870) was a staunch advocate for advancing access to education for women in the middle years of 19th century. Founding the Troy Female Seminary in 1821, located in Troy, New York, Willard helped educate over 12,000 women who attended the school during its first 50 years.
As head of the Troy Female Seminary, Willard was an early promoter for teaching science to young women. Troy’s curriculum included mathematics, science, philosophy, and geography. Geography, in particular, played a major role in a student’s education at Troy. Willard believed that studying geography laid the foundation for solid scholarship, “sound judgement, and an enlarged understanding.” In addition, she found that studying geography “brings into action the powers of comparing and abstracting.” Willard was adamant that it was more important to teach students how to think, rather than what to think and that the study of geography could promote this teaching philosophy.
Willard’s pedagogical approach to geography was groundbreaking many different ways. As opposed to starting with global geography or the composition of the universe, she urged her fellow teachers to start on a more local scale. “Instead of commencing the study of maps with the map of the world, which is the most difficult to understand,” she and her co-author William Woodbridge wrote, “the pupil here begins, in the most simple manner imaginable, to draw a map of his own town.” This pedagogy is reflected not only in the geography textbooks she wrote with Woodbridge, but also in the atlas she published to accompany her “Willard’s History of the United States, or, Republic of America.”
Willard’s historical atlas begins not with the American Revolutionary War, but with a map of indigenous peoples on the eastern coast of North America. By drawing rough circles around approximate territories and attempting to map territorial movements, she places human geography into an historical context. Trying to capture the dynamism of human movement on a static map is an inherently difficult, perhaps problematic, task, yet her attempts help convey just how populated the continent was prior to European contact. The maps in her atlas also depict the incursion of Europeans in North America, starting with Spanish, French, and English invasions prior to 1578 and ending with United States territorial claims in 1826.
While Willard promoted a geographical education for women, part of her advocacy had its roots in the notion of “Republican Motherhood.” This idea, stated briefly, is that women should receive an education because they are responsible for the education of future citizens, namely, their own children. The concept of Republican Motherhood had been around for decades before Willard’s work, but she built upon some of its precepts. Specifically, she called for government funding of women’s colleges and that women should be trained specifically for a profession, not just to teach their own children, but so that they could support themselves without necessarily having to marry.
Emma Hart Willard was among the first Americans to offer educational opportunities to women and was an early proponent of the study of geography. Her pedagogical model at Troy was widely adopted by other colleges (including all-men schools) and her pupils moved throughout the United States establishing a network of schools to educate more women. Willard’s students from Troy acted as “agents of cultural diffusion,” spreading support for women’s education throughout the country.