From Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle, the formidable men whose minds and military exploits have shaped La France are well chronicled and commemorated.
But a question kept troubling Heidi Evans, a young Brit who moved to Paris in 2014 to be a tour guide, as she herded tourists from the Pantheon to the banks of the Seine: “What about the women?”
“We talked about a lot of great men – Napoleon, and Louis the XIV, and other kings of France mostly called Louis,” she says. “And we talked a little bit about ‘bad women,’ like Marie Antoinette. I didn’t think it was fair, this ‘great man’ ‘bad woman’ imbalance.”
So she sought to correct it by creating a “Women of Paris” tour. Running now for a little more than a year, it takes visitors – not exclusively, but predominantly, women – on a journey through feminist texts, scientific experiments, and rebellious disregard for social mores. The women who had to fight for recognition in their day, Ms. Evans points out, are still less recognized than their male counterparts.
On this day, we are on a newer tour which the English-lit major crafted exclusively around female writers in the chic Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, the heart of French intellectual life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
"Out of the home and onto the page"
We meet outside Les Deux Magots, the iconic café that served as a second home for the Parisian intellectual elite in the middle of the 20th century, including Simone de Beauvoir, most famous for her feminist treatise “The Second Sex.”
But it is the less familiar addresses that are the most illuminating.
First stop is the Editions des Femmes, a publishing house for women authors opened in 1973 by Antoinette Fouque, co-founder of the French Women’s Liberation Movement. She said her goal was to get women “out of the home and onto the page,” Evans tells our group of three.
Ms. Fouque also founded France’s first collection of audiobooks, well before the podcast, so that busy housewives could still experience great literature.
And we pass the house of Colette, the French novelist best known for “Gigi,” who was forced to write her first four books in her husband’s name.
“Thank God we were born when we were,” says Tracy Cooper, one of my companions on the tour, who is on an annual man-free trip to Paris with her old college friend Caryn Jerrett. Ms. Jerrett, though, thinks her friend is over-optimistic. “Think of the enormity of it, that no woman has ever been as famous as a man,” she points out.
As we walk along the cobbled streets of the Left Bank quartier, Evans doesn’t just share biographical notes but the theories expounded by the “Women of Paris.” We talk about the issues facing women that are as current as they are historical, such as abortion and domestic violence.
Curiously, the topic of disgraced Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein doesn’t come up until I raise it. For now, Evans says, the question has not sparked much conversation, but she suspects that might change with her “Women on the Stage” tour, set to start next month. The idea that female stars must have slept their way to the top existed in ancient times, she explains, and persists to the present day.
8 out of 726: could do better...
When we pass the domed French Institute that houses the Académie Française the notoriously conservative body tasked with safeguarding the French language, Evans asks us to guess how many of the 726 members elected since 1635 have been female.
Both British women shoot low, at three and five. I go with a more optimistic 30. Wrong. Eight. “It’s pretty much an old man’s club,” says Evans. “Like many places,” adds Ms. Cooper.
Outside the former residence of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym George Sand, Evans tells us about the novelist who cross-dressed to access a man’s world. “She wanted to live like a man, and today she is so loved and respected for that, even more than for her writing,” she says.
But old stereotypes endure. Evans recalls that when she was telling her grandfather about this tour, he referred to the 19th century novelist as “Chopin’s mistress.”
“Women of Paris,” Evans explains, aims to shift thinking about gender roles that have so often confined women’s identity to that of “wife of” or “mistress of.”
“I wanted to look at what women have done,” she says, “how they lived and helped shape the city of Paris.”