On a recent morning in Paris’s Left Bank district, tour guide Mina Briant led a small group past the legendary Café Les Deux Magots and the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church, both magnets for tourists, to a leafy patio tucked away in a back street
There, Briant, who works for the Women of Paris tours, pointed to the “Edition des femmes” and explained that it was the first European publisher for women. It was created by Antoinette Fouque in the early 1970s, a period when France was rocked by protests over a manifesto on abortion, written, among others, by the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. The publishing house continues to this day with a bookstore and gallery space dedicated to the work of the writers.
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It’s a fitting start to a tour focused on the struggles and accomplishments of women writers and editors. On another street, Briant pointed to a sun-kissed apartment that in the 1890s housed the prolific French writer Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, known simply as Colette, along with her first husband, Willy, an editor 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 enraptured audience. “Willy also used to lock Colette in her room for hours on end to get her to work harder and produce more as he was making money off of her 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 Le Figaro newspaper, wrote more than 80 novels and short stories, and she was known for her many affairs with members of both sexes, including the pianist Frederic Chopin.
“Her publisher said she would sell more copies if she used a man’s name and so she became George Sand. She also adopted this masculine alter ego,” said Briant.
“His dress became more masculine, he smoked a pipe in public and managed to get a license to cross-dress, which was illegal at the time.”
‘A one-sided story’
These are the kind of offbeat stories and names that most of the 33 million visitors expected in Paris this year (the numbers are rising again after two years of the COVID pandemic) are unlikely to encounter, even if they visit the Saint-Germain neighborhood. -des-Pres, which is steeped in intellectual and literary history.
“The narrative you tend to get on most introductory trips to Paris is dominated by great men who influenced the city like [King] Henry IV, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo or Louis XIV”, tells DW Heidi Evans, founder of the Women of Paris tours.
“If you think about the key players in French history, a lot of these men rule and then some bad queens,” he said. “You really get this one-sided story that tries to glorify brave men and demonize 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 tour guides as this evil, bloodthirsty queen; many other women only get a mention as lovers or muses.”
Evans speaks from experience. He moved to Paris from London, where he studied French literature, and began touring for various companies in 2014, immersing himself in the city’s history.
“My aunt came to visit and joined one of my tours in Paris and commented at the end how little I had talked about women. From that moment on, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head,” the 32-year-old said.
‘The erasure of women’
That 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 city’s arts, theater, literature, culture and politics.
“When I started researching the tours, I was amazed that there was so much elimination of women in Paris’s past. The more you investigate, the more you discover how invisible women were,” Evans said.
These findings are part of the thematic walks that, among other things, allow the visitor to rediscover some denigrated queens, how they ruled and in what context. The tours also take them to the sanctuary of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, among other places.
At the Pantheon, France’s great national necropolis, which sits atop a hill in the Latin Quarter of Paris, visitors learn about the few women buried there. The first woman to be accepted there on her own merits was the celebrated Polish-French scientist Marie Curie, in 1995. Others followed her, including Holocaust survivor and women’s rights icon Simone Veil. Last year, American-born dancer, singer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker became the first black woman to be buried in the 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 Louvre’s half-million works are attributed to women, according to Evans.
He said that 4,000 of the 6,000 streets in Paris are named after men; only 300 after women. The city’s statues and sculptures are also overwhelmingly male; the feminine ones that exist are largely allegorical, for example, that of Marianne, who embodies the French Republic and represents real women.
“Very few must-see tourist landmarks in the city honor or showcase the work of women. They are connected 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 walk focused on women writers.
During her recent tour, guide Briant told participants that it was only in 2017, after several requests, that the first female writer joined the French baccalaureate. [secondary school] Curriculum: Madame de La Fayette, a 17th-century novelist joined celebrated male authors such as Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Honore de Balzac on the required reading list.
This year, French playwright and political activist Olympes de Gourges, known for her 1791 “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen,” was also added to the list.
“For a long time, there was this elitist perception that only men were worthy of being published,” Briant told tour attendees. “Writers like Colette and George Sand were considered light and frivolous. Women’s writing wasn’t really considered important until much later in the 20th century.”
The only non-French woman talked about on the tour is American expat Sylvia Beach, who opened the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. It became a very important meeting place for writers such as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, whose book Ulysses he published in 1922.
Yet Beach, who played a major role in shaping the arts in early 20th-century Paris, remains largely unknown. A plaque outside the original store address does not mention who Beach was or his bookstore; he only mentions Joyce.
“It’s fascinating to learn about this unsung history of Paris and all these female voices that have been forgotten,” Meghan Devine, who is from Scotland and took the literary tour, tells DW. “I also don’t recall reading any female writers at school in Scotland.”
‘Get the story right’
The Women of Paris are not the only ones trying to rebalance the city’s history and draw attention to the contributions of women. Some other niche groups now also offer “feminist tours” of the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, and the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Evans, however, said she consciously avoided using the word “feminist” on her walking tours in an attempt to open them up to a broader audience.
“It is important to understand that women are capable of greatness and achievement just like men. It’s also a much fairer understanding of history,” she explained. “I think we need to see these women from the past in Paris for all the amazing things they contributed and the role they played in the city to see how we can act in the future, to be inspired.”