In the early 1830s, the French school teacher Eugénie Luce migrated to Algeria. A decade later, she was a major force in the debates around...

In the early 1830s, the French school teacher Eugénie Luce migrated to Algeria. A decade later, she was a major force in the debates around educational practices there, insisting that not only were women entitled to quality education, but that women’s education served a fundamental role in the French mission in the colonies. “Woman is the most powerful of all influences in Africa as in Europe,” she wrote in 1846, the year after she founded a school for the instruction of indigenous Muslim girls.

In A Frenchwoman’s Imperial Story: Madame Luce in Nineteenth-Century AlgeriaRebecca Rogers (Stanford University Press, 2013), a Professor at the Université Paris Descartes and an expert in the history of the French educational system, lucidly explores Luce’s work in the field, bringing  a wealth of precise details– everything from what the lessons in the school room were like to prize-giving ceremonies and hygiene inspections. But Rogers also lets the reader in on the questions that remain about Luce’s own life.

Rogers notes that while “Eugénie Allix’s efforts to establish and finance her school have left ample traces in the colonial archives,” there are many details of her life that are not present and which can only be lightly sketched. For example, “[C]ivil registers offer tenuous insight into Eugénie’s social network during her first decade of life in Algeria”… The circumstances of her second marriage “have left no trace in the archival record”… It’s an interesting meditation on the limitations of archives– how the story that is told of the life after is dependent upon the letters and signatures and red tape that the people of history have left behind them, as well as the moves the biographer must make to fill those gaps.

So often the stories of women in history become the stories of all the men they knew and yet, in this case, the archive itself prevents that. As Rogers writes, the men in her life “[b]oth shaped her life in ways the biographer can only imagine” and yet the biographer is left to imagine precisely because the proof is not there. “She appears in the colonial archives as very much an independent woman,” which represents a rather refreshing reversal, almost as unique today as it would’ve been in the 19th century: a woman whose story stands solely on her work.

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