Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Marie Souvestre: An Inspiration to Eleanor Roosevelt

Marie Souvestre (born 28 April 1830)


An important influence on the intellectual development of many young women, Marie Souvestre founded two important boarding schools, Les Ruches, in Fountainebleu, France, in 1863, and Allenswood Academy, outside London, in 1870--in their own way, each of Souvestre's schools served as a "city of ladies," helping shape young girls into independent, forward-thinking young women.

Marie Souvestre, c. 1900
Among her many pupils who went on themselves to shape the futures of young women is Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a pupil at Allenswood Academy from 1899 to 1902. According to the brief essay on Marie Souvestre posted at the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, Souvestre's independence of mind, intellectual accomplishment, and "commitment to human justice" inspired Roosevelt, who wrote, observing the model of Souvestre, "I think I came to feel that the underdog was always the one to be championed."

In addition to Roosevelt, Souvestre's pupils included Dorothy Strachey Bussy, whose novel Olivia included a fictionalized account of her education at Les Ruches; the American Natalie Clifford Barney, an openly lesbian writer and activist who established a female academy, L'Academie des Femmes; and her younger sister, Laura Clifford Barney, a teacher and activist who represented the International Council of Women at the League of Nations.

Souvestre is also an important figure in gay and lesbian history--she founded Les Ruches with her partner, Caroline Dussaut. After a break in their relationship and her relocation to England, Paolina Samaïa, who taught Italian at Allenswood Academy, became Souvestre's long-term partner.

There is a biography of Marie Souvestre, though it is in French--but you can easily order David Steel's Marie Souvestre: (1835-1905): Pédagogue pionnière et féministe from Amazon if that is not a deterrent. Otherwise the essay I've linked to, above, is a good start, if brief. Otherwise, information about Marie Souvestre seems to be most readily found in biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, at least for American readers and/or English speakers.

Dorothy Strachey's fictionalized account of Marie Souvestre and Les Ruches, Olivia, considered a classic in lesbian literature, is available in print and in a Kindle edition.