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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because it was more comfortable than the trussed-up styles of the time; she smoked cigars; she considered marriage outdated and had a string of lovers, male and female, perhaps most famously the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.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