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Spotlight on France

A feminist's guide to Paris

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Charlotte Soulary, author of the Guide de Voyage Paris in front of one of Nikki Saint Phall's celebratory sculptures
Charlotte Soulary, author of the Guide de Voyage Paris in front of one of Nikki Saint Phall's celebratory sculptures RFI/HIRD

Olympe de Gouge, Marie Curie, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Durand, George Sand ... such women have contributed to the social, political and artistic development of Paris. But they don't pop up in your average guide book. The Guide de Voyage has changed that, giving women their rightful place in the history of the French capital.


"As a tourist I never found the information I was looking for when I visited a country or city," says Charlotte Soulary. "And I wanted to know more about the women in history in society, in culture."

So she wrote her own guide book.

The Guide de Voyage takes tourists around Paris through the eyes of 50 women, influential in the fields of politics, science and the arts.

Women like the feminist and political activist Olympe de Gouge.

When she found the 1789 Declaration of human rights didn't sufficiently take women into consideration, she drafted her own Declaration of women's rights.

Her activism cost her her life and she was guillotined just a few days after Marie Antoinette.

You can visit both women's cells at the Conciergerie, which was used as a prison during the French revolution.

"For us right now, the feminists of the 21st century, [de Gouge] was a very important person because she paved the way for our mobilisation, especially for legal rights," says Soulary. "You have to wait to 1946 to have it included in the French constitution and it’s only after the Second World War that French women could vote and be elected. So she was really, really among the first ones to begin this fight."

The invisibility of women

"You have many important women who participated in history, a lot of women’s heritage, but it’s less visible than men’s heritage in Paris," says Soulary pointing to Hôtel de Ville (City Hall).

The Paris powerhouse sends out a very clear message about the place of women.

The facade is adorned with statues of important men; the women are tucked down the side, facing the Seine, obscured by trees.

They include writer Madame de Sevigné, Manon Roland - who played an important role in the French Revolution - writer and philosopher Germaine de Staël and artist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Vigée-Lebrun was a famous woman artist and portraitist of Marie Antoinette.

"An impressive figure because she managed to life from her art," says Soulary. That was very rare at the time since women were not allowed to study fine art or attend anything other than still-life classes.

"You can see some of her work in the Louvre. You only have around 20 female artists there and when I did the book I struggled to find them."

Soulary's done the hard work so you, dear reader, will not have to.

George Sand and the female perspective

Other highlights include the 19th century writer Aurore Dupin, better known by her male pseudonym George Sand. The Luxembourg Gardens has a statue of her reading.

Sand wrote more than 70 novels and published her first book, Indiana, in 1832, under the pseydonym G Sand. The story of a woman trapped in marriage, Soulary says it was quite shocking at the time for a book to be written from a female perspective.

Dupin was also involved in the 1848 revolution and founded a journal called La Cause du peuple (The People's Cause) in which she developed her vision of democracy.

"It was a way to contribute to political debate at a time when women couldn’t contribute officially," says Soulary.

Writing by women for women

For France's largest collection of feminist writings and journals, Soulary takes you to Paris's 13th arrondissement and the Marguerite Durand library.

On her death in 1936 the militant feminist, actress and journalist handed over all her archives to the city of Paris. You'll find magazines like La Spectatrice (early 18th century), La femme libre (1832) and La voix des femmes (1848) as well as all the archives of La Fronde, the magazine Durand founded in 1897.

"At that time she said that as the main newspapers didn’t cover women’s issues or important women, she would make a newspaper which would only cover women’s issues and would only be owned by women and written by women," Soulary explains.

A political activist during the suffragette movement, Durand made a symbolic statement by standing for election.

Improving gender equality through tourism

There are many more women to discover. Some like Miss.Tic are leaving a very visible print on the city through street art, mainly in the 14th arrondissement.

Ultimately, the book offers a more gender-balanced perspective on the city.

"The idea is really to improve gender equality using the world of travel and tourism and I think to improve gender equality you have to know more about women, what they did in the past, what they do in the present.," its author comments.

And that knowledge should give women and men a better understanding of society as a whole.

"I think we’ll have a new view about our society and we’ll understand better the future we can create."

Soulary's guide book is part of an international blogging network where women from all over the world write about improving gender equality through travel.

Guide de voyage is a non-profit and the book was published through crowdfunding. They hope to publish a version in English.

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