black and white photograph, a panoramic view of Paris.
Story

Paris is a woman

Women in history who shaped Paris

by
Johanna Fisher (Professor of English and Women Studies, Co-director Women and Gender Studies)

There is a well-known film documentary (produced in 1996) entitled Paris Was A Woman. It celebrates famous women in Paris between World War I and World War II.

One might extend this premise to include both the city as woman and render some of her other famous women from the past a voice, as evidence of the verisimilitude (representation) of this title.

The beauty of Paris is embodied in her architecture from ancient to modern times, imbued with lines and curves and magnificent spires. Ornately decorated buildings and colourful gardens reflect the artistry of those that built her.

Paris was the home of such women as her patron saint Genevieve, Christine de Pizan - the first woman to be paid for her writing - and Héloïse, the famous nun and woman of lettres of the 12th century.

a black and white portrait photograph of Hélène Cixous.

Paris is also known for contemporary women from the 20th and 21st century such as philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Hélene Cixous and, of course, the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel.

Paris has played host to these remarkable women who have left their spirit in a city that, like them, reflects grace, intelligence and courage. Paris provided a space for her women to create, to think and to act - despite the political, economic and social restrictions that historically made their voices and work often invisible.

Let us take a look at a few of the many great women of Paris.

Genevieve

a black and white illustration, Saint Genevieve reads a book while sitting under a tree near animals, three angel faces appear in the sky.

Genevieve, a Gallo-Roman woman of noble birth, was the patron saint of Paris. She lived in the 5th century, and was instrumental in saving Paris from the invading armies of Attila the Hun (ruler of the nomadic Huns people).

Paris's townspeople were at first sceptical of Genevieve's motives, as she was a descendant of what they considered to be 'outsiders'. She gave good advice to the people of Paris for the women to not flee but to stay and pray- this saved them from slaughter.

Respect for her advice succeeded in securing her place as a wise and honourable woman saint of Paris. Later, a church was erected in her name where her relics are buried.

Héloïse

black and white illustration, a profile portrait of Héloïse.

The medieval period produced a number of great women thinkers, writers, composers, theologians, and artists. Héloïse of Paris was one such woman. She was a revolutionary thinker in the field of theology and the way(s) it was interpreted by church scholars.

Her critical considerations were respected by her private tutor, Abélard, a cleric, who proclaimed in a letter to her:

I am inferior to you in every way, because you surpass me even where I seemed to surpass you

He saw her as a person of intelligence. They later became passionate lovers which led to a rather tragic end for both of them.

The love they expressed was not considered appropriate - Héloïse and Abelard could not legally marry since clerical marriage was forbidden. They did, however, marry secretly and had a child together. Héloïse was not able to raise her own child, Astrolabe. He was put in the care of Abelard's sister, Dionysia.

Abelard insisted Heloise should spend the rest of her days cloistered from society as he did himself. The separation was painful for two people who so deeply loved one another. She remained in his mind and he in hers.

a drawing showing a large tomb with a pointed roof and columns.

Through their letters to one another, we see a love that burned bright despite their separation. Ultimately, we remember Héloïse as a woman of great learning and grace, who loved Abelard to the end. They are buried together in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Marianne

a colour photograph of a statue of Marianne.

Marianne is the allegorical symbol of a wider France, representing the tenets of French political ideals such as liberty, equality, fraternity and reason.

It becomes quite clear, therefore, that there is little wonder Paris is imagined as a woman. Marianne takes her place among other goddesses of reason and intelligence, such as the Roman goddess Minerva or the Greek goddess Athena - at once fierce and wise women.

She was not a real person, however. She is imagined as real in various forms: paintings, marble busts, memorials and statues as the one found in Paris.

Gertrude Stein

black and white photograph of Gertrude Stein in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso and other modern art paintings hanging on the wall .

Paris has also embraced women from outside of France who came to the city in search of support for their intellectual and artistic work.

One of the most notable was Gertrude Stein who, in Paris, founded an avant-garde movement that spoke to her own artistic thinking about the structure of literature - that challenged late 19th century notions of style, content and language. It was also a place that accepted what would have been considered an alternative lifestyle.

Stein lived there with her life-long partner Alice B. Toklas and nurtured many modernist writers. American writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as artists such as Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and French painter Henri Matisse gathered at her salon.

The salons of Paris were places where women might test the acceptance and appreciation of their artistic work. Stein established her own salon that supported her, Alice B. Toklas and others in their own artistic endeavours.

It is in the establishment of such places that we see her innovative drive to continue the tradition of supporting women - one that the city of Paris offered to her. She is famous for saying

America is my country, and Paris is my hometown.

She and Alice remained in France even through the turmoil and deprivation of the World War II.

After the war, they both returned to their beloved city of Paris where they continued their work. Stein wrote Wars I Have Seen the year before her death in 1946. Like Héloïse and Abélard, Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas are buried together in the Pére Lachaise Cemetery.

plaque on a wall dedicated to Gertrude Stein.

Many more women artists, writers, philosophers, scientists and innovators benefitted from the gifts of Paris. The city of Paris is indeed a woman: a place where women did and can today still find solace, support, and inspiration for their work.

In celebration of all the contributions women have made to human history, the city of Paris should be counted among those who have offered women an opportunity to, as Simone de Beauvoir said, become a woman.