Inside the Pantheon in Paris’s Latin Quarter lie the remains of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Èmile Zola and dozens of other great citizens who helped shape French national identity. Outside the neo-classically designed mausoleum, an inscription reads: “to the great men, a grateful country.”
At the monument, the men might be dead but the patriarchy is still alive. Of the 85 who are interred here, only five are women including the scientist Marie Curie, French resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, and human rights champion and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil. Curie was the first, inducted as late as 1995, 60 years after her death.
Heidi Evans shakes her head in disappointment as she ponders this. “It’s a real illustration of the inequality there is in the city,” she says. “It’s not like they’re adding women every year to even up the numbers. They’re not.”
Evans, 27, can’t fix burial arrangements, but in her own way she is trying to fix Paris’s gender blind spots, one guided tour at a time. A recent British transplant to France, Evans runs feminist walking tours: on-foot explorations of the city’s neglected female figures and their impact on one of the world’s great capitals.
Her first stops on the main tour? The Pantheon and just beside it, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, a church housing the shrine of St. Genevieve, the city’s female patron saint. “I knew I wanted to start there,” she says. “I had an idea of focusing on some women on the Left Bank [of the river Seine]. It grew from there.”
Evans moved here three years ago, working as a guide on more conventional tours that ushered visitors through the city’s fabled monuments and historic crannies. “I really enjoyed the job and liked meeting people from all over the world and sharing my passion for the history of Paris with them,” she says, when we meet at a coffee shop in the fifth arrondissement one rainy May day. “But I was also quite struck only after a few months that we talk a lot about all these great men and these bad women.”
Women were either missing from stories about Paris or invariably showed up as muses, mistresses or villainesses. Holders of bad reputations included: Catherine de Medici, a diabolical queen with a cruelty-studded resume, and Marie Antoinette, a royal with expensive tastes and an ignominious end at the guillotine. Evans set to work.
“I do a defence of Marie Antoinette,” she says, smiling. “Her story is fascinating. She was completely a scapegoat during the French Revolution. The French rather unjustly pinned their hatred on her. And so I explore that and why that happened and what she did wrong. How her life had led up to her role as the queen of France and the problems she had that led to her fate.”
Catherine is exhumed and restored to a three-dimensional person. “I don’t try to say all these women were incredible and they didn’t do anything wrong, because they are human and everyone makes mistakes,” says Evans. “Some did terrible things… But I don’t want to just focus on the negatives, so I do talk about the positive contributions she made to fashion, ballet and perfume, for instance. Things we consider to be very French were made popular here through her efforts.”
Apart from Catherine and Antoinette and Curie, there’s a stop in honour of Josephine Baker, a remarkable but less-celebrated figure in the city’s annals. Baker, an African American woman, moved to France in the 1920s at the height of the decadent Jazz Age, became a performing superstar, adopted a dozen children, and overall led a pretty colourful life.
Baker and some of the other figures were news to me, even though I believed after quite a few trips to gay Paree that I had touristed it out within an inch of itself. Although one of the world’s most visited cities might have been endlessly canonised in films, literature and people’s holiday photo albums, there’s a whole vein of history to be unsheathed when it comes to the second sex.
“I created the tour so I would have an opportunity to talk about how women have shaped Paris and also to really bring some gender equality to the tourism industry,” says Evans. “I would love tourists to come away from their trip in Paris knowing just as much about Marie Curie as they might know about Napoleon. That would be the ideal outcome of my business.”
The second of the two tours Evans currently runs looks at literary figures, including writer Gertrude Stein and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The Sugar and Spice tour, as it is known, also has confectionary stopovers; interspersing storytelling with freshly baked goods. So you can digest second wave feminism with a macaron or three.
Evans is now working on creating a Montmartre tour that would take people through that bohemian, artistic quarter and the lives of Paris’s unheralded women muses and artists who lived there. It will also look at the women in the adjacent red-light area and the order of nuns who founded Montmartre. “So it’s kind of a weird mix of sex and religion and art,” she laughs.
Since it was election season when we met, it was hard to avoid asking if presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, she of the fiery tongue and the demagogic pronouncements, who finally lost to Emmanuel Macron, merited a mention. Evans shakes her head. “It’s always easier to talk about people that aren’t current,” she says. The motto is to perhaps focus on historic figures, not hysteric ones.
Evans has a degree in literature, but much of what she talks about is self-taught, gleanings from a lot of reading. She speaks with a quiet passion about her initiative on getting tourism to catch up with feminism.
And inequality is often in the tiny details: just 2.6 per cent of Paris’s streets are named after women, something Evans draws attention to on her tour. Public spaces are full of statues of triumphant men strapped on horses and kings resplendent in regalia, but women are hardly ever committed to stone. How come a seemingly progressive country like France has a gender imbalance when it comes to history and public memorialising?
“In history we always hear the winner’s side. And history was written by men until the last century. Until the last century women didn’t vote, they didn’t have the same rights as men. It’s normal. There is going to be this discrepancy,” she says. “I just think that in 2017 we should be doing things to change that.” And Evans, in her own small way, is trying to chip away at tourism’s glass ceiling.
Meanwhile, she looks forward to a more egalitarian time. “I just would love to walk through a city one day and have an equal number [of statues] of men and women,” she says. “That would be amazing. That is my ultimate goal.”
The Feminist Walk stops at the Pantheon, Jardin du Luxemburg, along the Left Bank of the Seine and through the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The Sugar and Spice Tour covers the lives and stories of the women writers of Paris along with confectionery stops along the route. (Heidi Evans organises tours for individuals and groups on request. Prices vary, depending on group size. For more information check www.womenofparis.fr or contact her on: +33788389242 or firstname.lastname@example.org).