For a long time, nobody was saying anything much about the decades-long disappearance of single-gender schools all over this country. I can’t speak about what the co-eding of schools has meant for boys, but I have been thinking about the value of teaching girls which I believe has been under-rated.
My thoughts were sparked by the opening chapters of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s remarkable biography, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, 1884-1933. Eleanor was blessed by her three years studying abroad at Allenswood, a girls’ boarding school started and run by the extraordinary Marie Souvestre. Blanche’s description of this school challenges some of my beliefs—or prejudices!—about elite girls and their families.
Mlle Souvrestre was herself the daughter of the French intellectual elite, her father a well-known philosopher and novelist. “She was an integral part of that community of radical thinkers associated with… Leslie Stephen” and many others, Cook writes. Stephen was the father of Virginia and Vanessa Woolf, one of the few fathers in this circle who did not send his daughters to Ravenwood.
Because of the international connections and ambitions of the U.S. upper-class, the daughters of the new nineteenth-century fortunes, such as Natalie Barney, attended, but the school was also so well-regarded that Henry James wanted his brother William to send his daughter there.
The graduates went on to various lives of distinction, including working for the underground in France during World War 2 as well as translating the works of Andre Gide; becoming principal of Newnham College, Cambridge (that institution’s woman’s college); serving as secretary of the London National Society for Women’s Service; or being recognized as an original and accomplished painter.
Cook describes Marie Souvestre’s international school as “thriving in the heart of patriarchal Victorian society,” educating girls who would go on to become debutantes and society brides to be “independent and creative.” A feminist of bold conviction, she disdained the patriarchal mind, “especially remarkable since her students often came from the upper echelons of that particular, and peculiar, elite.” She believed that young women must develop “an independent vision,” as well as the strength to fight for that vision in order to survive with purpose.Eleanor Roosevelt benefitted enormously from this teaching, and kept Marie Souvestre’s photos and letters for the rest of her life. What a mercy that their loving and companionable friendship was not labeled, as it would doubtless be today.
I can’t claim to have come under the influence, in another time and place, of a teacher as remarkable as Mlle Souvestre. But I was blessed, in my all-girls’ day school, with women teachers for whom teaching was a calling. All but one was single, and they lived in a modest apartment building across the street from the school; I doubt if any of them made much money, or expected to. They dressed in trim tailored suits, medium heels and stockings, and possessed a physical and intellectual vigor I had never experienced before. A small school in a southern city where girls were usually curbed physically or mentally, the Louisville Collegiate School for Girls and its teachers did not deal in those limits. My years there started me on my way as a writer.
Through the internet, the son of my English teacher recently sent me what he wrote were the only news clippings his mother kept from her days of teaching. Because of Mrs. Smith’s influence, I won prizes, at seventeen, that nourished my confidence and introduced me to the wider world, especially the Atlantic Monthly Award for a short story I submitted called “And The Band Played On.” The award included a four-year scholarship to the University of Pittsburg, which would have shaped me in a far different and more interesting way had I taken it up. But my parents’ obsession with the Ivy League prevented that outcome.
None of my teachers, including Mrs. Smith, had the dash, sophistication and intellectual reach of Marie Souvestre. But, possibly more important, they were as dedicated as she was to their jobs shaping girls.
I will always remember the brisk tapping of our history teacher Miss Whitmier’s heels as she hurried down the hall between classes. She had the distinction of being the first authority to correct my spelling. For good teachers know that a robust correction is often the way to foster a rewarding outcome.
How grateful I am, at this late day, to those gifted and determined teachers of girls.