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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Famous Women in French History

Jean Bonnerot, artist. Hero land! 1917. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The nation of France as we know it has a much more complicated evolution than can be explained by a timeline of dynasties and wars. To begin with the various regions of France had different customs languages and identities. As far as rulers and systems of government, centralized control of the entire region of modern day France was slow to emerge. A conventional and absurdly abbreviated summary of France's history begins with the ancient region of Gaul which was inhabited by Celtic tribes. The Parisii tribe was defeated in 52 BCE by Julius Caesar at the battle of Lutetia — eventually today's Paris. This is known as Roman Gaul. In the fifth century the Franks under Clovis I conquered the Gallic territory as the "Country of the Franks" and founded the Merovingian dynasty (476–750). Following that, the Carolingian dynasty was founded by Charles Martel but made more powerful under his son Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor in 800. Charlemagne was known for initiating the Carolingian Renaissance through a revival of monastic scholarship that renewed interest in the Classics. By the 11th century the Capetian dynasty (987 to 1328) began under the rule of Henry I. This was followed by the Valois (1328 to 1589) and Bourbon dynasties (1589 to 1792) most notable under under the Sun King Louis XIV and which led to the French Revolution of 1789 where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded. So how do women fare among all these feudal lords, warring territories, rival dynasties, kings and lords? This guide is an attempt to highlight some of the noteworthy women in French history — and not just the wives of kings.

We start in the 11th and 12th century with Héloïse (1098-1164), a married nun whose radical feminist ideas shaped one of the best scholars of the time, Peter Abélard. It is impossible to leave out Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) who lived a tireless life married first to the King of France, and later the King of England. She was also the mother of the future kings of England. The fearless Jeanne de Clisson (1300-1359), "the lioness of Brittany" became a feared pirate who killed Frenchmen with no mercy after her husband was murdered by the French king. Perhaps the most revered woman in all of French history, Jeanne D'Arc (1412-1431), who was inspired by God to fight the English during the Hundred Years War. She was burned at the stake as a witch by the British and canonized as a Saint five centuries later by the Catholic Church. Madame de Sévingné (1626-1696) has supplied French scholars and students with a snapshot of 17th-century life in an upper-class household by corresponding with her beloved daughter. Louis Dupin (1706-1799) a salonnière who entertained the greatest minds of her time and advocated for women's rights in her unfinished but published work, Ouvrage sur les femmes. Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) challenged the patriots of the French Revolution by demanding equal rights for women in her Déclaration des droits de la femme External. Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was executed for living a life she was forced into and in which she had few real choices. Marie-Louise Girardan (1754-1794) decided rather than finding a man she would pretend to be a man, board a ship as a steward, and travel the world.

La dame aux camélias. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By the beginning of the 19th century, French women were even more emboldened to fight their way into the man's world. Women such as writer George Sand (1804-1876) pushed boundaries around cross dressing and has a literary reputation on par with greats such as Balzac and Hugo. Socialist Louise Michel (1830-1905) lived a life of courage and remarkable resilience fighting for all those who were in need of protection. Painter Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) followed her passion and did not let motherhood prevent her from continuing with her talent for painting. The renowned feminist Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914) was at least a century early in fighting against societal inequalities that were overlooked by most. Sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) braved the world as a woman abandoned by her family, who despite her tragic life, produced art that continues to captivate. Scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934) worked tirelessly to earn two Nobel Prizes and raise two remarkable daughters. The fearless race car driver Camille de Gast (1868-1942) bucked all trends to set records. Writer Colette (1873-1954) fought to gain rights over her own works and brought attention to the injustices faced by professional women. The athlete Marie Marvingt (1875-1963) put female aviators on the map. Socialite and salonnière Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) facilitated the mingling of great minds from Britain, America and France and loved both men and women without apology or secrecy. Nelly Roussel (1878-1922) advocated for women's health, and composer Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome. They all contributed to forging new paths for women. In the twentieth century women such as Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil, Gisèlle Halimi, Colette Guillaumin and Monique Wittig challenged society in the realms of art and entertainment, as well as questioning conventionally held beliefs in philosophy, law, race and identity. This guide is a starting point to learn more about these remarkable women by using resources at the Library of Congress and digital resources online.

La Dame aux Camélias, (image, above) is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895) about the unrequited love he had for the courtesan, Marie Duplessis. In the character of Marguerite Gautier, Dumas paints the idealized version of his real-life affair, one where the object of his devotion is more loyal, and less flirtatious. A few years later Dumas wrote a stage adaptation which inspired Giuseppe Verdi to put the story to music as the famous opera, La Traviata, set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. In 1911, an older but still vivacious Sarah Bernhardt would star in a French silent film adaptation.