HISTORY TRAIL

Fol­low the fa­mous names who de­fied con­ven­tion and made history, with

France - - Contents - San­dra Hau­rant

Find out about the many in­flu­en­tial women from France’s history.

Any sur­vey of in­flu­en­tial women in French history can start in only one place: a vil­lage in the Vos­ges called Dom­rémy, where Joan of Arc was born in 1412 to a peas­ant fam­ily. She be­came known as la pu­celle (maiden), a moniker that has hence­forth been added to the vil­lage’s name.

In Joan’s time, the Hun­dred Years War was rag­ing and the vil­lage lay on the fron­tier be­tween lands ruled by the French crown and the area con­trolled by the English and the Bur­gun­di­ans. At the age of 13, Joan an­nounced that she was be­ing called to arms by the saints to rid France of its for­eign in­vaders and to el­e­vate the un­crowned king, Charles, to the throne.

In 1429, aged just 17, she con­vinced mil­i­tary com­man­ders to take her to meet the fu­ture Charles VII in Chi­non. She went on to lead the French army in their vic­tory over the English at Or­léans, and then ac­com­pa­nied Charles to Reims, where he was crowned on 17 July 1429. Joan paid a high price for her brav­ery; she was cap­tured in 1430 by the Bur­gun­di­ans, who passed her on to the English, who found her guilty of heresy. Joan was burned at the stake in Rouen on 30 May 1431.

Cen­turies later, in 1844, a rather dif­fer­ent Jeanne be­came the epony­mous hero­ine of a novel by an­other in­flu­en­tial French­woman, Ge­orge Sand, whose given name was Aman­tine Aurore Lu­cile Dupin (1804-1876). Sand was a pro­lific nov­el­ist, drama­tist, cor­re­spon­dent and lit­er­ary critic. Per­haps France’s most fa­mous 19th-cen­tury fe­male writer, Sand pushed the bound­aries in ev­ery­thing she did. She saw no need to con­form to the cul­tural norms; she dressed in men’s cloth­ing be­cause it was more com­fort­able than the trussed-up styles of the time; she smoked cigars; she con­sid­ered mar­riage out­dated and had a string of lovers, male and fe­male, per­haps most fa­mously the Pol­ish com­poser Frédéric Chopin. She wrote as she lived, with aban­don and pas­sion, and firmly be­lieved in the equal­ity of men and women.

A few years be­fore Sand’s death, a lit­tle girl who would grow up to change the world of medicine was born in Warsaw. At the age of 24, Maria Sk­lodowska came to Paris where, in spite of a lack of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, she was ac­cepted at the Sor­bonne to study physics and math­e­mat­ics. She met and mar­ried Pierre Curie, be­came a French ci­ti­zen and changed her name to the French spell­ing, Marie.

The cou­ple em­barked on a sci­en­tific jour­ney of dis­cov­ery which would bring the world life­sav­ing med­i­cal ad­vance­ments in the form of X-rays, and ra­dium as a treat­ment for can­cer. In 1903, Curie be­came the first woman to win a No­bel Prize – in physics – for her work on ra­dioac­tiv­ity. Eight years later, af­ter her hus­band’s death, she broke new ground again by win­ning a sec­ond No­bel Prize – this time in chem­istry – for cre­at­ing ways of mea­sur­ing ra­dioac­tiv­ity.

Be­tween the years in which she won her prizes, a fu­ture woman of in­flu­ence was born in Paris. The writer and philoso­pher Si­mone de Beau­voir be­came a lead­ing light of the French ex­is­ten­tial­ist move­ment, along with her part­ner Jean-paul Sartre, and a pow­er­ful driv­ing force in fem­i­nism. Her sem­i­nal work, The Sec­ond Sex, was pub­lished in 1949, a mere five years af­ter women in France had been granted the right to vote, and her work chal­lenged the world to re­think the role of women in so­ci­ety.

French women have in­flu­enced the world over in ev­ery field imag­in­able, from sci­ence to the arts, from fash­ion to politics, from cinema to sports. Co­lette, Édith Piaf, Coco Chanel, Cather­ine Deneuve, Brigitte Bar­dot, Si­mone Veil, Char­lotte Gains­bourg… the list of iconic French­women is end­lessly im­pres­sive.

The fourth Journées du Mat­ri­moine – a cel­e­bra­tion of women’s con­tri­bu­tion French arts and cul­ture – will take place in Paris in Septem­ber (mat­ri­moine.fr).

ABOVE: RIGHT: No­bel Prize win­ner Marie Curie; 19th-cen­tury writer Ge­orge Sand

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