On a recent morning in Paris’ Left Bank district, tour guide Mina Briant led a small group past the legendary Les Deux Magots cafe and the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church – two magnets for tourists – down to a leafy courtyard tucked away on an alley.
There, Briant, who works for the Women of Paris tours, pointed to the “Women’s Edition” and explained that it was the first women’s publishing house in Europe. It was created by Antoinette Fouque in the early 1970s, a period when France was rocked by protests against a founding manifesto on abortion, written among others by feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. The publishing house continues to this day with a bookstore and gallery space dedicated to the work of women writers.
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It’s a great start for a tour focusing on the struggles and achievements of women writers and editors. On another street, Briant pointed to a sunny apartment that in the 1890s housed the prolific French writer Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, known simply as Colette, with her first husband, Willy, a publisher and publisher.
“Colette wrote her first series of books here, which became bestsellers, but they were all published under Willy’s name,” Briant, a Parisian, told his delighted audience. “Willy also used to lock Colette in his room for hours to work hard and produce more since he made money off his talent.”
In another nondescript corner, visitors gazed at a building where successful writer George Sand, born Aurore Dupin in 1804, lived for a time. She became the first woman to work for the daily Le Figaro, wrote some 80 novels and short stories, and was known for her many affairs with members of both sexes, including the pianist Frédéric Chopin.
“Her publisher said she would sell more copies if she used a male name and so she became George Sand. She adopted that male alter ego as well,” Briant said.
“Her dress became more masculine, she smoked a pipe in public and she managed to get a license to cross-dress, which was illegal at the time.”
“A One-Way Story”
It’s the kind of stories and unconventional names that the bulk of the 33 million visitors expected in Paris this year – numbers are rising again after two years of the COVID pandemic – are unlikely to encounter even if they visit. the district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, steeped in intellectual and literary history.
“The narrative you tend to get on most introductory visits to Paris is dominated by great men who influenced the city like [King] Henri IV, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo or Louis XIV,” Heidi Evans, founder of the Women of Paris tours, told DW.
“If you think of the key players in the history of France, it’s a lot of these men who rule, and then a few bad queens,” she said. “You really understand this one-sided story of glorifying brave men and demonizing women like Marie Antoinette. [last queen of France before the revolution of 1789] or Catherine de Medici [queen of France from 1547 to 1559], who is vilified by all the tourist guides as this evil and bloodthirsty queen; many other women only get a mention as mistresses or muses.
Evans speaks from experience. She moved to Paris from London, where she studied French literature, and began leading tours for various companies in 2014, immersing herself in the city’s history.
“My aunt came to visit me and was on one of my tours in Paris and noticed at the end how little I had talked about women. to get the idea out of my head,” the 32-year-old said.
“The erasure of women”
This disheartening realization gave way to opportunity. In 2016, Evans launched the Women of Paris tours and the first of several themed walks dedicated to the history of women and their defining influence on the arts, theater, literature, culture and politics of the city.
“When I started researching touring, I was amazed to see that there was so much erasure of women in Paris’ past. The deeper you dig, the more you find out how women were invisible,” Evans said.
These discoveries are part of the thematic walks which, among other things, allow visitors to rediscover certain vilified queens, how they reigned and in what context. Visits also take them to the sanctuary of Saint Geneviève, patroness of Paris, among others.
At the Panthéon, the great French national necropolis, which stands on top of a hill in the Latin Quarter of Paris, visitors discover the few women who are buried there. The first woman to be accepted there on her own merit was the famous French-Polish scientist Marie Curie, in 1995. Others followed, including Simone Veil, Holocaust survivor and women’s rights icon. Last year, American-born dancer, singer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker became the first black woman to be buried in this revered space.
Visitors also learn that many of the city’s major museums are dominated by male artists. Only about 300 works of art among the half-million works in the Louvre are attributed to women, according to Evans.
She said that 4,000 of the 6,000 streets in Paris are named after men; only 300 after women. The statues and sculptures around the city are also predominantly male; the female ones that exist are largely allegorical, like that of Marianne, who embodies the French Republic and depicts real women.
“Very few of the city’s must-see tourist sites honor or exhibit the work of women. They are tied to a patriarchal past,” Evans said.
“Forgotten Female Voices”
The lack of recognition of women’s contributions in writing and publishing is also a recurring theme during the march focused on women writers.
During her recent tour, guide Briant told attendees that it was not until 2017 – after several petitions – that the first female writer was added to the French Baccalaureate. [secondary school] Curriculum: Madame de La Fayette, a 17th-century novelist, joined long-famous male authors like Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac on the list of required readings.
This year, French playwright and political activist Olympes de Gourges, known for her 1791 “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen” was also added to the list.
“For a long time, there was this elitist perception that only men deserved to be published,” Briant told his tour participants. “Writers like Colette and George Sand were considered light and frivolous. Women’s writing was not considered truly important until much later in the 20th century.
The only non-French woman spoken of on the tour is American expat Sylvia Beach, who opened the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. It became an extremely important meeting place for writers like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, whose book “Ulysses” she published in 1922.
Yet Beach, who played a big role in shaping the arts of the early 20th century in Paris, remains unrecognized. A plaque outside the store’s original address makes no mention of who Beach was or his bookstore; he only mentions Joyce.
“It’s fascinating to know about this little-known history of Paris and all these female voices that have been forgotten,” Meghan Devine, who is from Scotland and did the literary tour, told DW. “I also don’t remember reading about female writers in school in Scotland.”
“Understanding the story”
Les Femmes de Paris are not the only ones trying to rebalance the narrative of the city’s history and draw attention to the contribution of women. A few other niche groups now offer “feminist tours” of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, as well as the famous Père Lachaise cemetery.
Evans, however, said she consciously avoided using the word “feminist” in her walking tours in an effort to open them up to a wider audience.
“It is important to understand that women are capable of greatness and achievement just like men. It’s also a much more accurate understanding of the story,” she explained. “I think we need to see these women of the past in Paris for all the incredible things they brought and the role they played in the city to see how we can act in the future, to inspire us.”
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