Four Influential Feminist Women in French History

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Four Influential Feminist Women in French History
The French Revolution first proclaimed liberal and radical ideas and gave birth to the concept of feminism. However French women only gained the right to vote in 1944– a step that came many years after a number of other Western countries. Yet numerous women throughout the history of France, whether politician, philosopher or artist, have contributed to the movement for women’s equality. Here I highlight the political or artistic trajectory of four women who lived at different times of history. All have been recognized for their individual achievements. If you are learning French in Paris, and intrigued by this theme, consider our new private tour in easy French on the influential feminist women of Saint-Germain-des-Près and the Latin Quarter*. Olympe de Gouges (1748 – 1793) One of the first female politicians: a key figure in the history of feminism « Women have the right to mount the scaffold; they should likewise have the right to mount the rostrum » « La femme a le droit de monter à l’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la tribune » Considered one of the first feminists and one of the first women who entered political life, Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouze in 1748 in a bourgeois family that was not well-off. Married at age 17 against her will, she decided not to get married a second time after the death of her husband. She arrived in her 20s in pre-Revolutionary Paris and was received in the salons and cafés by the intellectuals of the period, and found her place among aristocrats, journalists and writers. Surprisingly, they welcomed the young woman who came from nowhere, and it was in their midst that she began to develop her own worldview. Influenced by the ideas of Les Lumières, Olympes de Gouges believed in total equality among all people, in a just distribution of capital and in assisting the needy. She chose theater, which was at the forefront of avant-garde politics, to express her radical ideas. Performed by her own theater company, she became famous with her play The Slavery of the Blacks. In it she denounced the economics behind slavery and supported its abolition. After the theater company agreed to stage her play, she was asked to revise the text, which was considered too sensitive politically. “The arts have no gender,” she wrote in an attack on Comédie-Française. Despite her disappointment with the world of theater, de Gouges was convinced she had a contribution to make to public discourse and edited a newsletter, Lettre au Peuple (Letter to the People), in which she developed a series of social reforms. Women did not have the right to be elected to public office or to vote, but de Gouges started to publish pamphlets and to distribute brochures and petitions to the National Assembly. Her rhetoric challenged the society she lived in. The pinnacle of her work was “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” published in 1791 in which she stated: “A woman has the right to be guillotined; she should also have the right to debate.” She campaigned for the right for women to divorce and obtained it in 1792. She campaigned in favor of a system of civil partnerships that would replace religious marriage. If de Gouges’ views on gender equality were considered revolutionary, when it came to the revolution itself, she was relatively moderate. She often advocated a constitutional monarchy, like the system in present-day Britain. When the Reign of Terror began under Robespierre and hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and tens of thousands murdered, 17,000 were guillotined following fake trials. In a letter to Robespierre she wrote “Each hair on your head carries a crime”. She was among the first to grasp that Robespierre was a demagogue who talked about democracy but actually aimed at personal power and dictatorship. She was arrested and sentenced to death in 1793. As she walked up to the guillotine, she declared: “Children of the fatherland, you will avenge my death.” George Sand (1804 – 1876) France’s most famous 19th century female writer “The cigar is the essential complement to any idle and elegant life”** « Le cigare est le complément indispensable de toute vie oisive et élégante » George Sand, whose real name was Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin, was born in Paris and brought up in the country home of her grandmother. She was only 19 when she married Casimir Dudevant, the son of a baron and a servant girl. She left him eight years after, leaving their two children behind as well. Although she wasn’t officially separated from her husband until 1835, after moving to Paris in 1831, she soon began to have many affairs. In 1831 Sand started to write for Le Figaro, the famous daily newspaper. During this time she got to know several poets, artists, philosophers, and politicians, and wrote a novel with her lover Jules Sandeau, Rose et Blanche, under the masculine pseudonym Jules Sand. The reason why George Sand and other female writers of the 19th century published under a male pseudonym was because it allowed them to publish without prejudice in male-dominated circles. Ivan Turgenev once said of Sand “what a brave man she was, and what a good woman”. She was one of the 19th century France’s most prolific writers. Her first independent novel, Indiana, was published in 1832. While this novel is in no way autobiographical, it is clear that Sand drew…

Lead photo credit : Simone Veil. Image credit: Flickr, ActuaLitté (CC BY 2.0)

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Based in Paris, Florence is the founder of French a la Carte, an agency that offers private and tailor-made French lessons to expats and also immersion in Paris with private tours in easy French for French learners. Florence is a "Parisienne" with her eyes turned toward abroad, and she has as an endless curiosity for Paris. She feels both like a native and an expat who likes to play the tourist in her own city. She was first a press attachée for ARTE, a Franco-German cultural TV channel, before turning to French language teaching. She founded French à La Carte in 2012. For lovers of Paris who would like to improve their conversational French in a efficient and enjoyable manner, French à La Carte also offers private tours which immerse the students in the vibrancy of Paris, with fulfilling outdoor activities adjusted to the level in French of each student. A pastry and chocolate tour in Saint-Germain-des-Près, the discovery of Paris vibrant neighborhoods, a private visit to the Rodin museum or a tour on the influential & feminist women in Paris, these are examples of what French à La Carte can offer. You can contact her at for more information on French lessons or private tours.


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-01-10 11:46:44
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Five Stars for this article, Florence - so important and informative. Merci beaucoup!