Encyclopedia Womannica

Feminists: Suzanne Voilquin

Episode Summary

Suzanne Voilquin (1801-1877) was a legendary French journalist, author, midwife, women’s rights activist and world traveller. She was a leader in the early Feminist movement in France and is perhaps best known for her work as writer and editor for the first French working-class feminist newspaper. She also lived through a plague and quarantine that feels particularly worth noting at this time.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by Fiverr. Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and show your support for Fiverr’s new store at FVRR.co/women, where they feature over 100 of the platform’s top female talent.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s feminist was a legendary French journalist, author, midwife, women’s rights activist and world traveller. She was a leader in the early Feminist movement in France and is perhaps best known for her work as writer and editor for the first French working-class feminist newspaper. She also lived through a plague and quarantine that feels particularly worth noting at this time. Please welcome Suzanne Voilquin. 

Suzanne Monnier was born in Paris, France in 1801 to working class parents. She received some formal education at a local convent school, but spent most of her early years caring for her ill mother and working as an embroiderer to help support her family. 

When Suzanne was 21, she met an architect named Eugene Voilquin, and the two were soon married. Both Suzanne and her husband were interested in progressive politics and social movements, and they eventually joined a French social reform movement called Saint-Simonianism. 

Based on the ideas of political and economic philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, the Saint-Simonian movement was based on the concept that the “productive class” needed preference over the “ idling class” in order to have a productive and efficient modern industrial economy and society. In their eyes, the “productive class” included industrial workers and agrarian laborers as well as businessmen, scientists, doctors, bankers and really anyone else who worked for a living. They believed that a society based on science, merit, and respect for the individual was vital for progress.

Suzanne was especially drawn to Saint-Simonianism because of the movement’s work to engage working class women and its support for equal women’s rights. These positions, in particular, were highly controversial for the time. The movement dispersed in 1832 after its leaders were jailed. They were detained based on charges related to promoting progressive ideas following a well-publicized trial.

That same year Suzanne gave her husband permission for an unofficial divorce. While divorce was still officially illegal in France, it was recognized within the Saint-Simonian community. Eugene left almost immediately to start a new life in Louisiana.

After the divorce, Suzanne began writing articles and working as an editor for France’s first feminist newspaper created by and focused on working class women, La Tribune des femmes. Working alongside other famous feminist writers and activists of the time, Suzanne and her colleagues were particularly focused on women’s issues like the right to divorce, the right for women to work outside the home in all industries, the right to an education and the need for society to offer real protections for mothers. 

When one of the major Saint-Simonian leaders was released from jail in 1834, Suzanne decided to join his newly formed sect and heeded its call to spread the movement’s message throughout the world. In April of 1834, Suzanne moved  to Egypt. Her goal was to live a “Life of Active Propaganda,” meaning that she would support herself as a single woman working in the world in order to model the possibility of such a life for other women.

Unfortunately Suzanne’s timing wasn’t great. She arrived in Egypt during the middle of a plague outbreak. Work was very hard to find as much of the population was in quarantine. She was eventually hired by a French doctor to tutor his children in exchange for him teaching her medicine. She could often be found working in his clinic dressed as a man. 

Suzanne eventually contracted the plague herself, though she recovered. Unfortunately many of her friends, including the doctor and his family, were not as lucky.

After her recovery, Suzanne returned to France where she began studies in homeopathy and became a licensed midwife. She also continued her women’s rights activism. In 1838, she tried to start an organization called the Maternal Association to Aid Young Mothers, but was unsuccessful in getting it fully off the ground.

During this period, Suzanne’s father became ill and her brother was jailed as a political prisoner. Suzanne needed to  support them and found little available work in France, so she left for St. Petersburg in 1839 with hopes of finding better work there. Unfortunately, the job situation was no better than in Paris, and the freezing Russian winters were highly problematic for Suzanne’s health. 

In 1846, Suzanne returned to France. Two years later, with the start of the French Revolution of 1848, Suzanne joined with other leading feminists to organize for and promote employment and education rights for women. Suzanne organized midwives and wet nurses to form the Society of United Midwives. She also wrote for the leading feminist newspaper, La Voix des Femmes.

The new French Republic failed quickly and in relatively spectacular fashion in late 1848, and Suzanne left France yet again and moved to New Orleans to live with her sister. Sadly, there is little record of Suzanne’s activities while in the United States. 

In 1860, with the outbreak of the American Civil War, Suzanne returned to Paris. Six years later in 1866, she published her now-famous memoirs detailing her incredible life, including her travels around the world. 

Suzanne died in Paris in 1877.

All month we’ve been talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiated March was that we will looked at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. 

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Fiverr, an online digital services marketplace connecting businesses with women who are creating, designing, copywriting, programming, editing, and more.

Fiverr is here to support the world’s freelance community during these challenging and uncertain times where businesses need to adapt in the face of the corona pandemic.  Women are an integral part of Fiverr's platform, many having worked with some of the most influential brands in the world. Fiverr is here to support all freelancers, entrepreneurs, and businesses at this time.

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Tune in tomorrow for the first episode of our brand new theme! For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!