From literature to fashion to science, French women have made seismic advances in numerous creative and technical industries. It is hard to imagine what the world would look like today had it not been for Marie Curie’s discoveries in radioactivity or Coco Chanel’s revolutionary ideas on women’s dressing. French femininity is as synonymous with Edith Piaf as it is with Brigitte Bardot whose styles range greatly but their power and influence rings equal.
This International Women’s Day – and Women’s History Month – we highlight some of the most influential French women over the last century.
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir was a philosopher, writer, and feminist theorist who played a crucial role in shaping modern feminism. Her book, The Second Sex, published in 1949, is considered a groundbreaking work in feminist literature. The book discusses the social, cultural, and economic oppression faced by women and argues that women must be treated as equals to men. De Beauvoir’s work was groundbreaking and helped to ignite the feminist movement in France and around the world, inspiring generations of women to fight for gender equality.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel revolutionized the world of women’s fashion in the 20th century. The designer and businesswoman made waves in an industry previously dominated by men. Her iconic concepts of wardrobe staples such as the “little black dress” and suit jackets liberated women who were previously constrained in corsets and floor-length skirts. Chanel also popularized the use of jersey fabric in women’s clothing, an inexpensive material which democratized access to these comfortable designs, giving all women the option to dress easily with style. Her designs were simple, elegant, and practical, championing the idea that women should dress for themselves and not to please men.
Marie Curie (born Marie Sklodowska in Poland and moved to France at a young age) was a physicist and chemist who made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different fields – one in Physics in 1903 for her work on radioactivity, and again in 1911 in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. Curie’s work has had a significant impact on the fields of medicine and physics and has inspired generations of women to pursue careers in science.
Josephine Baker was an American-born performer who became a naturalized French citizen due to her extraordinary contributions not only to French culture, but also to the French Resistance during WWII as a spy. Following the war, she was a fierce advocate for civil rights in both the U.S. and France. In 2021, Baker became the first Black woman – and only sixth woman* – to be entered into the Panthéon in Paris.
*Simone Veil and Marie Curie also have this honor to be laid to rest in the Panthéon. Curie is buried next to her husband in a tomb lined with lead as their bodies are apparently still radioactive.
Simone Veil was a member of the French Resistance and a Holocaust survivor – being imprisoned in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen – who would go on to become a lawyer and a politician, playing a crucial role in advancing women’s rights in France. She was the first woman to be elected president of the European Parliament and was instrumental in legalizing abortion in France in 1975. She fought for equality throughout her career and was a symbol of hope and inspiration for women around the world.
Edith Piaf was a singer and songwriter who is considered one of the greatest French singers of all time. She rose to fame during World War II and became a symbol of hope and resistance for the French people. Her songs were emotional, powerful, and filled with passion, airing a unique voice that captured the hearts of millions. Piaf’s songs continue to be beloved by audiences around the world.
Brigitte Bardot was a French actress, model, and singer who became a cultural icon and a symbol of French beauty in the 1950s and 1960s. She was known for her allure, style, and charisma, and her films and songs were popular around the world. Bardot also used her fame to promote animal rights and became a leading activist in the fight against animal cruelty, founding the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals.
Colette was a writer who challenged the norms of society with her unconventional lifestyle and feminist writings. Taking inspiration from her avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles, she wrote about women’s desire in a way that was considered scandalous at the time. One of her most famous books, Gigi (which was later turned into a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1958) is a feminist classic that explores the theme of female independence and empowerment – a great testament to her own life and career.
French women have made waves not only in the history of France, but around the world. Take a moment this Women’s History Month to appreciate the women most inspiring to you!