Born Emma Hart in Berlin, Connecticut on February 23, 1787, she was a leader in the movement for women's education in the United States. After leading the Female Academy in Middlebury, Vermont, for a couple years, she quit to marry Dr. John Willard of that city. Almost three decades her senior, Dr. Willard died in 1825.
Emma Hart Willard resumed her teaching career by opening a school of young ladies in her own home, where she taught mathematics and philosophy, subjects that were not then considered appropriate for female instruction. In 1818, she sent a letter to Governo DeWitt Clinton of New York, entitled Plan for Improving Female Education. In 1819, she took her appeal to the New York legislature, and in that year moved her school to Waterford, New York.
In 1821, she opened the Troy Female Seminary, where she continued to introduced young women to rigorous subjects, including science. Supported by local people but without state government financing, she was nevertheless able to train hundreds of women who went across the country as school teachers.
Besides being a teacher and educational administrator, Willard wrote extensively. Her works included many textbooks and poems, including the well known poem, Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep. She turned the seminary over to her son and daughter-in-law in 1835 and spent the rest of her life promoting public education. She died in Troy on April 15, 1870.