After eight decades, alumna’s thirst for learning remains unquenchable

Sweet Briar’s Mary Helen Cochran Library recently came into possession of a 2007 doctoral dissertation. Its author, Jane Rather Thiébaud, graduated from Sweet Briar in 1957. At age 71, Thiébaud completed the requirements for an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in women’s studies and French from the University of Maine.

Foretelling the future: The words accompanying Thiébaud’s 1957 Briar Patch photo read, in part, “vivacious, intense, eager,” a “good conversationalist” and “be a serious student and a gay hostess, but whatever you do, do it well.”
Foretelling the future: Thiébaud’s 1957 Briar Patch photo caption reads, in part, “vivacious, intense, eager” and “Be a serious student and a gay hostess, but whatever you do, do it well.”

Thiébaud, who also spent a year abroad through Sweet Briar’s Junior Year in France program, wrote her dissertation on the life of Catherine de Vivonne Savelli, Marquise de Rembouillet. The work is titled “Madame de Rambouillet’s Chambre Bleue: Birthplace of Salon Culture.”

The biography at the end of the manuscript reveals that after the unexpected death of her husband in 1967, Thiébaud became an independent cultural and social animatrice — or organizer of gatherings — in Geneva. For this, she tapped her experience as a homemaker and hostess entertaining their friends, neighbors and her husband’s business associates. For many years, she ran “The Geneva Portfolio” to help English-speaking arrivals acclimate culturally, socially and practically to Geneva, along with other consultancies.

Those years were a tumultuous time of discovery and change — both good and bad, Thiébaud says. Among the good: She discovered feminism and became a participant and student of the movement in Europe.

“It was just that you could do things and the [recognition of] the value of what you’re doing, even if it’s being a housewife — which I still think is valuable. You can do a lot from that position,” she said, explaining feminism’s appeal.

What she saw that she didn’t like was the decline of the thing she would eventually write about for her dissertation: “salon culture.”

“I organized many gatherings to bring people together,” she recently wrote in an unpublished essay. “I witnessed the rise of technology and commerce. I saw human communication and sociability slowly being taken over by machines. This evolution caused me great concern.”

When she moved back to the United States to be nearer her parents, she took the opportunity to go back to school “in order to reflect upon this situation and to try to make some sense of what was happening in the world,” she wrote.

Thiébaud in 1990 when she received her M.A.T. at age 55.
Thiébaud in 1990 when she received her M.A.T. at age 55.

She went on to receive her Master of Arts in Teaching in 1990 and, eventually, the Doctor of Philosophy. It was a new period of discovery, one in which she continued — albeit unconsciously, she says — to cultivate an identity she wears proudly to today.

“I have just reached my 80th year of being a lifelong learner,” she wrote in the essay.

Thiébaud is now busily engaged in post-graduate research on various subjects. One is feminism, another the legacy of the Protestant Reformation — a “work, work, work” imperative that pervades so much of modern society around the world.

“I tremble to see how hard people are working in America,” she said with no trace of irony. “We’re not taking enough time to smell the roses.”

There’s no irony, because her research isn’t work.

“I just hope I can stay alive to do it,” she says. “My research nurtures me and makes me happy.”

So, Thiébaud sent the dissertation to be accessioned to the library’s collection, and with it, a handwritten note that says, in part, “It is my fervent hope that this dissertation will inspire students to continue with lifelong learning, which becomes more and more interesting and important with the passage of years.”