Engaged Women of Letters

Christine de Pizan (1364)

My journey into the lives of overlooked women began with “La femme au temps des cathédrales” (“Women in the Days of the Cathedrals”) by Régine Pernoud, where I first encountered Christine de Pizan. Her husband’s death plunged her into significant financial difficulties. Defying the conventions of her time, she neither remarried nor entered a convent. In 1405, she published “The Book of the City of Ladies,” considered the first feminist book in the history of French literature. With finesse and humor, she relied on ancient texts and the Bible to introduce her arguments and circumvent censorship. Her writings and arguments have been cited throughout history, and her richly illuminated manuscripts are a testament to her notoriety.
A notable quote: “…I am grieved and outraged to hear men repeat that women want to be raped and do not dislike being forced, even if they loudly protest. For I cannot believe that they take pleasure in such abomination.”

(Sources: “The Book of the City of Ladies”. Stock / Middle Ages Editions ©1986. BnF website. Link:

Moderata Fonte (1555)

While always seeking to locally anchor my exhibitions, I delved into Venetian women during my preparation and discovered Moderata Fonte. Venetian woman of letters recognized as one of the pioneers of feminism. Her work, “The Worth of Women,” published in 1600, features seven women: the widow, the bride, the single woman, the young wife, the virgin, and the elders who humorously and insightfully discuss and arbitrate on the role of women in their society. This publication had a broad influence in Italy and Europe during the Renaissance and inspired works dedicated to the dignity and excellence of women. Tuscany and Venetia were fertile grounds for women’s writings in 16th-century Italy.
A notable quote: “Remarry, me? replied the other. I’d rather drown than submit again to a man! I have just escaped from servitude and suffering and you’re asking me to go back again of my own free will and get tangled up in all that again? God preserve me!”

(Source: “Le Mérite des femmes” by Moderata Fonte. Éditions Rue d’Ulm, translated by Frédérique Verrier)

Madame de Villedieu (1660)

While researching Madame de Lafayette, I stumbled upon a curious reference: “This study should allow for the reconsideration of Mme de Villedieu’s importance of in the history of novels and Mme de Lafayette’s debt towards her.” Intrigued, I clicked through and ended up ordering several of her books.

Madame de Villedieu was a successful author and one of few female writers to receive a pension from Louis XIV. She pioneered the genre of “historical gallant novella,” blending fictional romantic intrigues with real historical narratives. This form offered an alternate version of history that included the role of women. Through her writings, she addressed issues of rape, bastards, the social and financial power of husbands, the mechanisms of seduction, and the overall condition of women.
Between 1669 and 1673, following the death of her lover Antoine Boësset (“Monsieur de Villedieu,” who never married her but whose name she carried), she produced feverishly, publishing seven works.
Notable work: “Les Amours des grands hommes” (“The Loves of Sundry Philosophers and Other Great Men”) (1671) is a “demolition of the hero,” where she subjects “Great Men” to a scathing treatment. She accuses historians of stripping these “Great Men” of their humanity. She writes: “…I violate the respect that is due to sacred Antiquity.” In this book, for example, Solon, who embodies patriotic faith, initiates a war solely for a romantic conquest. She made Antiquity accessible to a female readership, who would otherwise not have access to it.

(Sources : « Les Amours des grands hommes », société des textes français modernes, 2015. « Les désordres de l’amour » Éditions Payot et Rivage, 2015. « Portrait des faiblesses Humaines » First editition 1686 / LEN BnF Gallica. ww.theses.fr « Deux fondatrices du roman : Madame de Villedieu (1640-1683) et Madame de Lafayette (1634-1693) : étude comparative » by Gérard Letexier, 1995. www.persee.fr « Énonciation de la fatalité et structure du récit : quelques remarques sur Les Désordres de l’amour et La Princesse de Clèves » by Thérèse Lassalle, 1984)

Gabrielle de Villeneuve (1685)

Jennifer Tamas, author of “Au non des femmes”, (“The Women who Refused”) introduced me to the thoughts of Madame de Villeneuve in her chapter “In the Prison of Consent or How Beauty Captivates the Beast.”
Widowed at 26 and financially ruined, she became the mistress of a playwright and came to writing late in life with twelve works signed only with the initial of her surname (Madame de***), making their attribution challenging. Women of nobility at that time often published anonymously to avoid scandal and legal issues.
The author of the famous fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” her version published anonymously in 1740 was overshadowed. The more known version, later adapted by Cocteau, is that of Madame Leprince de Beaumont, published 16 years later. This version ends midway, when Belle’s love frees the Beast, omitting the more political part of the tale.
Notable work: “Beauty and the Beast” (1740), where the beast is real, equipped with a trunk, covered in scales, howls, lacks intelligence, and bluntly asks Belle each night, “Do you want me to sleep with you?” (as per the text). The castle is more than magical, opening windows that allow Belle to travel the world and educate herself by watching theater and opera. After the prince’s transformation, his mother refuses his marriage to Belle, a merchant’s daughter. Two critical points in this version: a critique of the society’s hierarchical structure and women’s subjugation, but, also, flesh and desire are freely named.
In her foreword, as if justifying herself, she writes: “to say that I am a woman is to say enough, (…) read who will (…) these six tales, whose success, good or bad, is alone capable of engaging me to make them public, or to leave them in the Cabinet.”

Sources: “Beauty and the Beast,” Folio Pocket Editions, 2010. “Au non des femmes” by Jennifer Tamas, Éditions du Seuil, 2023, La couleur des idées collection.

Louise Dupin (1706)

I discovered Louise Dupin’s research and manuscripts through a podcast featuring Frédéric Marty as a guest.
An educated and wealthy woman, she brought fortune to her husband. Her own writings remained unpublished as publishing was a risky act for a prominent woman at the time. However, in 1748, immediately after the publication of “The Spirit of the Laws,” she published, along with her husband and two collaborators, a collective refutation to denounce the misogyny in Montesquieu’s words.
Around 1740, she initiated a comprehensive work in four parts on the female condition: “physical, historical, political, and legal.” It’s this encyclopedic approach, aimed at providing a panoramic view (across all latitudes and periods), that makes her work unique, as well as its rigor. She hired Rousseau as her secretary for eight years on this subject.
George Sand (born Aurore Dupin), her great-granddaughter by marriage, reportedly read Louise’s manuscripts, which were preserved by the heirs at the Château de Chenonceau for two centuries.
Notable work: her manuscript “Des femmes,” with some eloquent chapter titles from the legal section: Article 26: “Of the rights which women have naturally enjoyed, of the undertakings which have been made against these same rights; of those which have been restored to them, which have been taken over by modern usurpations”; Article 30: “Of the power of the husband, of the favour which the laws grant to married women and of those which they could grant to them”; Article 37: “Of rape”.

Sources: “About Women,” Éditions Payot et Rivage, 2022. Podcast “La Compagnie des œuvres,” August 18, 2023, guest Frédéric Marty. “Why has philosopher Louise Dupin remained in the shadow of the Enlightenment?” Link: podcasts.apple.com/fr/podcast/la-compagnie-des-oeuvres/id1082325156?i=1000624891600

Claire de Duras (1777)

While researching Chateaubriand’s circle, as famous men often conversed with talented women, I discovered a podcast by Marie-Bénédicte Diethelm that sheds light on the work of Claire de Duras, whom Chateaubriand called “my sister.” A noblewoman, her father was guillotined in 1793, forcing Claire into exile in Philadelphia, Martinique, and then London. These experiences broadened her perspective on otherness. After the restoration of the monarchy, she returned to France, where she hosted Europe’s most renowned salon, famous from Russia to the United States. She was idolized; publishers encouraged her, yet only two manuscripts were published during her lifetime. Despite her recognized talent, she doubted herself, writing about her male writer friends: “I see them all so sure that what they do is superb… I envy them.” Notable work: “Ourika” (1823), the first French novel narrated from the perspective of a young black woman, an extraordinary story inspired by a true event. As she approaches marriageable age, this child understands that “her color will always isolate her within the society” she thought she was integrated into. It was a success, a true “ourikamania”: thousands of copies sold immediately, translated into English, Russian, German, Spanish, and merchandise made for women and men (dresses, jewelry, canes, etc.). Then, she was forgotten.

Sources: “Ourika – Edouard – Olivier ou le Secret,” Folio Classique Editions, 2007. Podcast by Hauts-de-Seine on Claire de Duras “the sister” with Marie-Bénédicte Diethelm, 2023. Marie-Bénédicte Diethelm edits Claire de Duras’s “Romantic Works” for Folio Classique editions in 2023. This is the first edition after 200 years, preserved in the family archives.

Virginia Woolf (1882)

“A Room of One’s Own,” a classic, had been familiar to me since adolescence. Yet, its full significance didn’t resonate with me until later. It was the first book I revisited at the start of my project on eclipsed women.
At 24, already fragile and orphaned, Virginia Woolf’s brother died suddenly. He had been her gateway to the wider world and introduced her to her future husband (and her sister’s) among the intellectual group “Bloomsbury,” whose initial core was formed at Cambridge and of which she became a pivotal member. A series of lectures at Cambridge for young women led to the creation of “A Room of One’s Own,” published in 1929. Throughout her life, the closeness of her friends and family was both a source of support and exchange, despite her chronic depression.
A notable quote: “Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers.”

Sources: « Virginia Woolf, romans, essais » Gallimard Editions, Quatro Collection ©2014.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908)

“Le Deuxième Sexe” (“The Second Sex”), briefly touched upon in high school, became the second reading that led to my project on eclipsed women. I remember that within its pages, Simone de Beauvoir awakened numerous destinies of women…
A philosopher and novelist, she lived in common-law union with Jean-Paul Sartre. Considered a major figure in feminism, particularly thanks to her book “The Second Sex,” published in 1949. In the first volume, she presents a “biological and historical” account, then questions why women are defined as ‘the Other’ and the resulting difficulties. In the second volume, she traces “how women learn about their condition and how they experience it.” She also reveals and rehabilitates many forgotten women, which became a fertile source for my research.
A notable quote: “Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Donkey Skin, Cinderella, Snow White, the one who receives and endures. In songs and tales, the young man sets off to seek the woman; he fights against dragons, he combats giants; she is locked up in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, chained to a rock, captive, put to sleep: she is waiting”.

(Source : « Le deuxième sexe, I », « Le deuxième sexe, II ». Éditions Gallimard, collection Folio essais © 1949 et 1976.)

Women Painters

Jeanne de Montbaston (circa 1330)

Among the treasures of the BnF website where I love to get lost, the name of Jeanne de Montbaston appears.
She was sworn in as “illuminatrix and libraria” in 1353, and produced illustrations for a large number of manuscripts, including copies of the “Roman de la rose”. This “bestseller” is a long poem written in the 13th century by two successive authors, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun (Christine de Pizan judged de Meun’s writing to be indecent and hateful towards women). After the death of her husband, a “libraire-juré” (“sworn librarian”) at the University of Paris, Jeanne took over the workshop, revealing that she was well-educated and read Latin.
Notable work: a manuscript of the “Roman de la rose” illuminated by Jeanne, one of several manuscripts created by her, preserved at the BnF, which speaks to the value of her talent. Her representations of female characters are treated as equals, with their faces even slightly larger than those of the males.

(Sources: https://elles-d-artistes.blogspot.com/search/label/Jeanne%20de%20Montbaston%20%28vers%201330%29 – please note the inaccuracies in one of the manuscripts.

Plautilla Nelli (1524)

My friends, knowing my obsession with the subject of eclipsed women, gifted me Katy Hesse’s media-touted book as soon as it was released. In it, I found many names of previously identified female artists, as well as new ones such as Plautilla Nelli.
Nun of the Dominican convent in Florence, self-taught and the first known female Florentine artist of the Renaissance. A true “business leader,” she established an all-female painting studio within her convent. The artworks sold to the local Florentine nobility ensured the economic self-sufficiency of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio.
Notable work: “The Last Supper” (Oil on wood, about 7m long) is of great pictorial finesse and is considered the first large-format biblical representation painted by a woman. Recently restored thanks to the help of AWA (Advancing Women Artists) and the high media coverage of an exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 2017. Today it can be seen in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, unveiled in 2019, after 450 years of invisibility.

(Sources: “The story of art without men” by Katy Hesse, Penguin UK Editions, 2023. The Guardian article.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1535)

While browsing comments about Giorgio Vasari’s famous “Lives of the Artists,” it is mentioned that he devotes a passage to Sofonisba. This successful book, spanning a thousand pages over two volumes, was published in May 1550 in Florence. However, finding complete versions, and therefore his exact words about Sofonisba, is challenging.
Penniless, her father encouraged the education of his daughters, and, a rare occurrence for the time, Sofonisba entered an apprenticeship in a workshop in Lombardy, setting a precedent. She couldn’t study anatomy, considered unacceptable for a woman at the time, which excluded her from historical painting and confined her to portraiture. At 25, upon referral, she became a painter at the Spanish Court and a lady-in-waiting to the new Queen. The pensions she received from Philip II throughout her life attest to his recognition of her talent. Her second husband supported her work, and she painted throughout her life. Michelangelo and Van Dyck praised her work.
Notable work: a self-portrait (Oil on canvas, 110 x 109 cm, Pinacoteca of Siena), a mise en abyme: Bernardino Campi (her teacher) is seen finalizing a painting, which is the portrait of Sofonisba (his student)! Through her portraits, she introduces a new style, featuring informal poses and much emotion.

(Sources: Illustrated Monograph by Maria Tsaneva, 2019. Printed by Amazon. www.nationalgeographic.fr/history)
On her tomb, her husband, Orazio Lomellini, placed an inscription: “To Sofonisba, my wife (…) who is remembered among the greatest women of the world, standing out in portraying the images…”

Lavinia Fontana (1552)

While researching Sofonisba Anguissola, I came across Lavinia, an exceptionally free female painter, and I immediately ordered the catalog of a recent exhibition featuring her work in Ireland. Her father, a painter, secured the family’s financial future thanks to his daughter’s talent.
Exceptional event, a marriage contract established in 1577 stipulated that Lavinia would continue her painting practice rather than take on domestic roles. She did not bring a dowry to her in-laws; her talent was guarantee enough. Despite having 11 children and no workshop of her own, today over 130 paintings have been attributed to her, including large-format public commissions. She skillfully managed to combine the representation of social status with extreme tenderness, especially in her portraits of children.
Notable work: “Venus and Mars,” 1595 (Oil on canvas, 110 x 109 cm). When exhibited at the Prado in 2019, the commentary was “the most audacious known secular painting.” Mars places his hand on Venus’s buttock, while she turns towards the viewer with a confident gaze, an unmade bed in the background suggesting intercourse.

(Source: Catalog of the National Gallery of Ireland “Lavinia Fontana, Trailblazer, Rule Breaker,” 2023)

Marietta Robusti (circa 1550)

As part of an invitation to an exhibition in Venice, which, as always, I wanted to anchor locally, I set off in search of Venetian women, and Marietta’s destiny inevitably crossed my path.
Venetian all her life, she was the daughter of Jacopo Robusti (Il Tintoretto), who taught her to paint. She assisted him on large format commissions, disguised as a man to be able to paint in churches. After initially encouraging her, her possessive father forbade her from becoming an official painter (both the court of Emperor Maximilian II and that of Philip II of Spain had invited her). Known as “la Tintoretta,” this excellent portraitist unfortunately died in childbirth, too young, at 36.
Notable work: “Self-Portrait with a Madrigal,” 1578 (Oil on canvas, 93 x 91 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Her self-portraits are among the few paintings that can be “certified” as her work; other pieces are believed to be hers but remain unauthenticated or are signed by her father.

(Sources: www.museodelprado.es/en. Article in Beaux-Arts magazine n°474)

Judith Leyster (1609)

On an impromptu visit to The Hague, to support the graduation of the daughter of a friend stranded in Shanghai, I discovered the Mauritshuis museum. I was drawn to a fascinating small painting where a woman refuses a man’s money, titled “The Proposition” by Judith Leyster.
Recognized in her lifetime: Judith was only 19 when she was first mentioned as an artist in her city’s chronicle. She was the first woman admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke and had her own workshop. An example to illustrate her status: she sued Frans Hals for taking a student who had left her workshop without the prior agreement of the Guild! The recognition and intense activity was significantly reduced after her marriage to a painter in 1636.
Notable work: “Merry Company,” 1630 (Oil on wood, 68 x 57 cm), was acquired by the Louvre Museum in 1893. Its ownership was uncertain until an investigation revealed the distinctive monogram “JL*” beneath Frans Hals’ signature. That same year, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot wrote an article about Leyster, who, until then, had been onsidered an imitator of Frans Hals; following this, he attributed several of Hals’ paintings to her.

(Sources : www.connaissancedesarts.com. Wikipedia)

Angelica Kauffman (1741)

While waiting for my friend, archivist paleographer Caroline Becker, (who has been immensely helpful since the very beginning of this project), in the entrance of the Royal Academy in London, I look up at the ceiling and am captivated by a work of Angelica Kauffman.
She was the daughter and then assistant to a painter father, a common practice at the time as workshops were forbidden to women. Her talent was recognized throughout Europe during her lifetime. In 1766, she was invited to London with her father, where she immediately gained the patronage of several influential women. When the Royal Academy was founded, its president (the painter Reynolds) invited Angelica and Mary Moser to be part of the 34 founding members. They were the only two women! In 1781, she married a Venetian painter and returned to Italy, intending to dedicate herself to historical and allegorical painting, a rarity for a woman. She thus completed commissions for major collectors like the Prince of Naples.

Notable work: “Elements of Art”, 1778 (Oil on canvas, 126 x 148 cm), four paintings commissioned for the Council Room of the Royal Academy at Somerset House by Sir William Chambers. “Design” depicts a woman drawing a male antique torso. Training of the time dictated that artists start by drawing from castings and then proceed to live models. Angelica never moved to the stage of drawing nudes, which was then forbidden to women.

(Sources: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists. “Angelica Kauffmann: Biography, Work and Legacy” by Maria Tsaneva, 2023. Wikipedia.)

Marguerite Gérard (1761)

A friend introduced me to Carole Blumenfeld, an art historian. While working on her thesis about the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, she noticed the talent of his niece, Marguerite Gérard. When her mother passed away, Marguerite was 14 years old. She then joined her sister and brother-in-law Fragonard, who were painters residing in the Louvre, becoming their student and later collaborator. An excellent portraitist, she was also skilled in business. She strategically positioned herself at the heart of the Parisian scene by creating a unique formula to attract attention: small portraits, a uniform size of 21 by 16 centimeters, painted on wood panels, where the characters look at the viewer in a very direct and natural way. She attracted a clientele of financiers, provincial aristocrats, Russian, English, and Flemish noblemen.
Notable work: Portrait of Hubert Robert (Oil on wood, 22 x 16 cm, private collection). He was one of the most portrayed painters of his time. At the 1789 Salon, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun exhibited a portrait of the artist, an official image. Simultaneously, Marguerite painted a “private” portrait of the painter. Two visions of portraiture then opposed each other: the public portrait encouraged by the Royal Academy, and the private portrait for close acquaintances. “Her portrait is natural, the pose informal, enhancing the impression of simplicity and geniality in his features, it is one of the only ones the painter’s widow kept by her,” (C.B).

(Sources: “Marguerite Gérard, Artiste en 1789, dans l’atelier de Fragonard” Éditions Paris Musée (Musée Cognac-Jay), 2009. www.culture.gouv.fr/)

Marie Victoire Lemoine (1754)

In the summer of 2023, art historian Carole Blumenfeld invited me to her exhibition in the city of Grasse, where she presented a collection of paintings by the Lemoine sisters, with a focus on Marie-Victoire. Daughter of a wig maker, Marie-Victoire decided to become a painter in a “family where the independence of daughters was a founding principle.” Student of François-Guillaume Ménageot, she learned his technique, but not his style. At 25, her career took off thanks to the Princess de Lamballe, and with the support of the jeweler Lempereur, one of the greatest collectors of paintings and drawings of his century. Bold, talented, and business-minded, she says proudly: “I declare that I make a living from my art”.
Notable work: “The Interior of a Woman’s Painting Studio,” 1789 (Oil on canvas, 116 x 88 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). This painting could be titled: The Pride of the Workshop. The two women represented are not identified; one stands with a palette in hand, facing a large-format canvas in progress, while the other, kneeling, draws with chalk, a drawing board on her lap. Marie-Victoire enabled her three sisters, Marie-Elisabeth, Marine-Genevieve, Marie Denise, and her orphaned cousin, Jeanne Elisabeth, to become financially independent through painting! A remarkable family whose pillars were encouragement, emulation, and, in the words of C.B., “the horizontality of sisterhood, not the verticality of patriarchy”.

(Source: Catalog of the exhibition “Je declare vivre de mon art” at the Fragonard Museum in Grasse, Gourcuff Gradenigo Editions, 2023)

Jeanne Elisabeth Chaudet (1767)

At the Fragonard Museum in Grasse in 2023, Carole Blumenfeld also showcased paintings by Jeanne
Elisabeth, orphaned cousin of the Lemoine sisters.
She was trained by and lived with Marie-Victoire Lemoine, along with Marie-Victoire’s sisters. Jeanne Elisabeth married the sculptor Antoine Denis Chaudet, who became an integral part of this familial and artistic sorority. “From the Directoire period onwards, she abandoned allegorical figures to explore the boundaries between portraiture and genre scenes, transmitting political messages in her works. She conveys her uncertainties concerning the great debates of her time: the fragility of childhood, the strength of women and current political events, in a subtle language intended for insiders” (dixit C.B.). It is sometimes necessary to draw connections between the compositions of the cousin and those of the sisters to discern their meanings.
Notable work: ” A Girl Carrying her Father’s Sword,” presented at the Salon of 1817 (Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm, collection of Farida and Henri Seydoux, Paris). This painting embodies a society exhausted by military quests. Audacious and politically astute: “The composition is a response to a lost work of Mantegna’s, often copied and made known through a 16th-century engraving, “Allegory of Servitude”. The artist’s choice is quite provocative, since here we see a young girl seizing the symbols of patriarchal power by arming herself with an officer’s sword, to repair the wrongs of the Napoleonic years,” according to the exhibition label.

(Sources: Catalog of the exhibition “I Declare to Live from My Art” at the Fragonard Museum in Grasse, Gourcuff Gradenigo Editions, 2023.
Texts and labels in situ at the exhibition, 2023)

Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768)

In 2010, while preparing a book about titles in art, particularly in painting, the “Portrait d’une femme noire” (“Portrait of a Black Woman” also known as “Portrait of Madeleine”) displayed at the Louvre Museum caught my attention. Its label indicated the original title, “Portrait d’une Négresse” (“Portrait of a Negress”), showcasing how a title can reflect its era.
Marie-Guillemine received excellent training under Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and in the studio of Jacques-Louis David, studying history, composition, and drawing. In 1791, her large-scale work “Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell” showcased her boldness, emphasizing the courage of a woman, a rare subject of work. Her studio, where she exclusively taught women, illustrated her feminist convictions. In 1814, at the height of her success and while receiving a government pension, she regretfully abandoned her career, feeling humiliated, so as not to harm her husband’s position as a State Councilor.
Notable work: “Portrait d’une femme noire” (Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Louvre Museum, Paris), exhibited to great acclaim at the Salon of 1800, is a powerful statement about the emancipation of women and slaves (six years after the abolition of slavery). Recognized as a masterpiece, it entered the State’s collections.

(Sources: www.culture.gouv.fr/. Louvre Museum website. www.gazette-drouot.com. Wikipedia)

Émilie Charmy (1878)

I was instantly enamored with two self-portraits presented at Frieze 2023, curated by Camille Morineau. The paintings were out of budget, but I fell in love with her style and eventually found a more modest painting by her at Drouot, which brings me joy daily in my studio.
An orphan, Émilie refused a predetermined life. She trained in painting and, around the age of 25, moved to Paris. There, she formed connections with Fauvist painters and the author Colette. In 1905, she was noticed by Berthe Weill at the Salon d’Automne. She enjoyed some recognition, for instance, her participation in an exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in 1928, where she was featured alongside Cézanne and Chagall. Sadly, she was largely forgotten after World War II.
Notable work: a series of introspective self-portraits created throughout her life, characterized by raw, intense, and free strokes.

(Sources: awarewomenartists.com. Catalog of the exhibition “Portraits and Figures of Women from Ingres to Picasso” at the Musée du Luxembourg in 1928 featuring works by Braque, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Matisse, and others.)

Natalia Gontcharova (1881)

I encountered her story while working on a public commission for the town hall of Châtenay-Malabry. I discovered that some of her drawings were found in the reserves of the Maison de Chateaubriand, where her compatriot and friend Lydie Plekhanov-Le Savoureux lived.
Admitted in 1898 to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, she met her husband there. In 1913, the couple exhibited “Rayonist” works in Paris, a movement inspired by the Futurists, aiming to visualize the vibrations of an object. In June 1915, she left Russia permanently and obtained French nationality in 1939. A retrospective was dedicated to her in 2019 at Tate Modern in London.
Notable work: set designs for the ballet “The Golden Cockerel,” 1914. Serge Diaghilev noticed her and invited her to collaborate with the Ballets Russes. She also created sets for “The Firebird” and “The Wedding,” as well as costumes for many other ballets. Her approach to Russian folk art and familiarity with the French avant-garde gave birth to a unique style.

(Sources: awarewomenartists.com. Sotheby’s. harvardartmuseums.org. data.bnf)

Women of Art

Berthe Weill (1865)

I discovered Berthe Weill in the bookstore of the mahJ (the Museum of Jewish Art and History), captivated by a portrait drawn using only black lines on a white cover. In the 1880s, Berthe started as an apprentice with Mayer, a renowned antique dealer, where she developed her eye for art. A pioneer, she was the first woman to take on the role of a gallery owner, establishing herself at the foot of Montmartre on Rue Victor Massé. The beginnings were challenging, and Mayer’s widow suggested to Berthe’s mother to give her the money intended for her dowry to generate funds for the gallery. 30 years later, in 1931, “L’œil de Paris” wrote: “Famous gallery! It saw the first Matisses, Picassos, Dufys, and Derains, long before their prices soared.” She indeed made the first sales of Picasso in Paris and organized Amedeo Modigliani’s first solo exhibition.
She emerged alive but ruined from World War II when unique support came her way. The Society of Art Lovers and Collectors organized a public auction for the benefit of Miss Weill: “these works are offered by the artists in recognition of the selfless efforts that helped their beginnings.” In 1948, she was made a Knight of the Légion d’honneur.

(Sources: “La petite galeriste des grands artistes,” Éditions L’écarlate. Autobiography “Pan! dans ’œil… ou trente ans dans les coulisses de la peinture contemporaine 1900-1932,” published in 1933. Archive fund www.bertheweill.fr)

Rose Valland (1898)

During a phone conversation with Marianne Vourch, a friend and broadcaster on France Musique always on the lookout for lesser-known stories, she shared with me the remarkable role of Rose Valland.
A teacher, trained in the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, École du Louvre, Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie, and the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Rose Valland’s impressive academic background legitimized her role as a curator. However, she initially joined the Jeu de Paume Museum as a volunteer assistant. In the absence of the curator who was mobilized during the war, the director of the Louvre, entrusted her with the safety of the collections and the operation of the museum. In June 1940, the Jeu de Paume became a “sorting center for Nazi looted art,” where Goering regularly came to “shop.” Rose mastered the art of discretion, becoming the ideal spy. She sifted through trash, eavesdropped, and thanks to her exceptional memory, made note of everything: arrival dates, origins, titles, and destinations of 100,000 looted artworks. She regularly brought her precious records to Jacques Jaujard, the director of the Louvre, who forwarded them to the Resistance. On May 4, 1945, appointed as a “Captain” in Leclerc’s Army, she went to Germany as a field agent. Over the next 10 years, she managed to recover nearly 60,000 artworks!

(Sources: “Rose Valland, l’espionne à l’œuvre” by Jennifer Lesieur. Éditions Robert Laffont, 2023. https://rosevalland.com)

Feliza Bursztyn (1933)

From one woman to another: at an exhibition on Julia Margaret Cameron, a Colombian friend told me about Feliza Bursztyn. Her husband, a writer, is in the midst of writing a novel in which Feliza is a character.
From Feliza first sculptures, her “chatarras” in 1961, she worked with scraps: pieces of metal, nuts, bolts, gears, cables, materials rarely used by a woman. She spent time in César’s studio during a stay in France. Later, she incorporated motors, movements, and sounds into her sculptures. In 1979, she declared, “In a patriarchal society, women have no choice but to simulate madness.” Notable work: the series “Las Histéricas,” 1968 (mixed techniques and a motor) consisted of human-sized abstract forms, covered in large canvases, that move noisily, shaking and vibrating like a hysterical woman. Hysteria, a pathology specifically diagnosed in women, was a subject widely exploited by misogynists in attempts to stigmatize female inferiority.

(Sources: awarewomenartists.com. Video by Leon Tovar Gallery “Featuring Feliza Bursztyn: Histérica”, 2020. Link:

Hannah Wilke (1940)

I knew her by name but hadn’t seen her works until the incredible exhibition “Les Amazones du Pop,” initiated by Hélène Guenin at the MAMAC in Nice in 2021.
An American sculptor and performer, she is described as a “pioneer of feminist art.” The term quot;Performalist self-portrait” perfectly encapsulates her practice where her body is her medium. Her entire oeuvre critiques the female condition. For example, in one performance, she adopts erotic poses inside an aquarium, referencing the objectification of women in store windows.
Notable work: “Needed-Erase-Her,” 1974, a collection of 30 vulva sculptures made from gum and bread dough, on plywood. The subject of female vulvas became recurring in her work with varying titles. A first series made of terracotta was exhibited in New York in 1960 and caused a scandal. In 1973, she presented a series of 176 vulvas, titled “S.O.S. Starification Object Series” in pink-painted ceramic.

(Sources: Catalog of the exhibition “Les Amazones du Pop: She-Bam Pow Pop Wizz!” collective, Flammarion Editions, 2020. “Hannah Wilke” by Nancy Princenthal, Prestel Editions, 2010.)

« Free Women »

Amanirenas (40 av JC)

Queen of Meroe, she conquers a series of Roman forts in today’s Sudan. She brings back, as a trophy, the head of the monumental statue of Emperor Augustus, which she has buried beneath a staircase in a temple dedicated to victory.

Zénobie of Palmyra (240)

Regent of an empire which covered Syria, Arabia, Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor. The court of Palmyra was one of the most brilliant intellectual and artistic hubs of the time.

Wu Zetian (624-705)

Only woman empress of China. The title and function of emperor was restricted to men. Concubine, she forms political alliances and will be crowned in 690, founding her own dynasty. She works to improve the status of women: public funerals for homeless women, care for widows, and hospices and shelters for young women.

Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179)

Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, she is considered the founder of natural history. She publishes two textbooks: “Physica” (9 volumes) and “Causae et Curae”.

Pétronille de Chemillé (~1060-1149)

In 1115, she becomes the first abbess of the Abbey of Fontevraud. She leads the community of monks and nuns, a mixed-sex order, which was unprecedented. Her name opens the long line of Fontevraud abbesses (only women will be at the head of the abbey) and expresses the power and liberty of women in the Middle Ages.

Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572)

Queen of Navarre and mother of the future Henry 4th (king of France), she converts to Protestantism. Until her death, she will be the religious and political leader of the Protestant movement in France.

Émilie du Chatelet (1706-1749)

The harsh reality of a woman torn between body and mind moved me when learning about the life of this mathematician and physicist. Pregnant with her fourth child, she worked urgently on her translation of Newton’s work. She completed the “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” gave birth, and then died. As French was the universal language during the Age of Enlightenment, her work became a cornerstone in the spread of the scientific revolution in Europe and still holds authority today. She also experimentally proved that kinetic energy is proportional to mass of an object and to the square of its velocity.

Laskarina Bouboulina (1771-1825)

Owner of a shipping company and Naval Commander, she raises the Greek flag (created herself) up the mast of her war ship, the Agamemnon. She plays a crucial role in Greece’s independence war against the Ottomans.

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987)

On March 6th, 1980, she is the first woman elected to the “Académie Française”. In an interview, she will state: “When you want to educate ourselves about someone from the past, you have a thousand times more documents about men than women”.

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)

On the 24th of January 1966, she becomes the first female prime minister of India. She leads the “Green Revolution” in the aim to remove her country from dependence on foreign powers and ensure its food self-sufficiency. Despite a mitigated outcome, she attempted to modernize the country, and will die assassinated.

Simone Veil (1927-2017)

The Veil law concerning the termination of pregnancy was voted on the 17th of January 1975, after a long fight.
List established by Caroline Becker (paleographer and archivist).
The aim was to retrace significant historic moments in women’s quest for freedom and independence across the world and centuries.

Women Adventurers

Aphra Behn (~1640-1689)

Traveler, spy, and author, she was the first English female writer to live off her work. Her novel “Oroonoko” is one of the first anti-slavery stories, throughout which the hero, an African price, becomes a slave; very modern! “Aphra Behn proved that one could earn money (…) and little by little, writing stopped being considered a sign of insanity,” Virginia Woolf.

Sophie von La Roche (1730-1807)

First writer to live off her art in Germany. Her husband falls into disgrace, she creates the first German magazine published by a woman and for women, and she writes novels to support her household. A traveler, she attempts to climb the Mont Blanc at over 50 years old, her narrative is considered as the first sports documentary.

Jeanne Barret (1740-1807)

Botanist and explorer, regarded as the first women to have traveled around the world. She embarked on “La Boudeuse et l’Etoile” with the Bougainville expedition, disguised as a man as women were not allowed to be a part of a ship crew.

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858)

discovered by chance

In the window of a bookstore, one title caught my eye: « Voyage d’une femme autour du monde ». (“Travels of a woman around the world”). She began her voyage around 50 years old, widowed, with grown children, alone and without financial means. She completes 5 voyages in 16 years, of which two trips around the world. The story of her travels will be published. Her writing is simple, her point of view almost naïve, yet uncompromising on colonies.

Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

At 23 years old, her father gives her 100 pounds to leave for America. Upon her return, she publishes anonymously « The Englishwoman in America ». She will finance her travels thanks to the publishing of her accounts accompanied by photography: Australia, Hawaii, Far West, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, India, Tibet, Turkey, Persia… She will be the first women to integrate the « Royal Geographical Society » and to the « Royal Photographic Society ».

Alexandrine Tinne (1835-1869)

Upon the death of her father, she becomes one of the Netherland’s richest heiresses and begins to travel with her mother: Norway, Italy, Middle-East and Egypt (1856). She begins photography, using wet collodion, to document her travels. She takes her second trip to Egypt in 1962, from which she gets great scientific and geographic results, but during which she loses her mother and aunt. She stays in the East, then returns to Libya, Darfur, and Tchad where she will be assassinated.

Jeanne Isabelle Massieu (1844-1932)

Upon widowed, she begins her travels in Mesopotamia, Lebanon, and Syria, then Ceylon and India. These were followed by a great tour of Asia by canoe and horse, during which she made her way through the jungle: Indochina, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, then China and Japan. At 64 years old, she visits the Himalayas and will be the first French woman to enter Nepal. She brings back stories and photography of local populations.

Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916)

Archeologist, novelist, and photographer, at the age of 30 she leaves for Persia with her husband. She is responsible for photography during their expedition. Persian speaker, she visits Muslim countries disguised as a man (short hair and masculine clothing), where she catalogues and photographs all the monuments, among other landmarks.

Myriam Harry (~1869-1958)

Born in Jerusalem, educated by an antique dealer father, she speaks English, German, Russian and Arabic. After some time in Berlin, she immigrates to Paris where her novel “La Conquête de Jérusalem” receives the first Prix Fémina in 1904. For the press, she will travel as a journalist, in particular to the Middle East, embracing her Easter-Western culture.

Emily Hahn (1905-1997)

Prolific American journalist and author (54 books and many articles). In 1926, she becomes the first women to have graduated from mine engineering in Wisconsin. Great traveler, she crosses Africa on foot in the 1930s. She leaves for Japan and China in 1935; once settled in Shanghai, she will be a bridge between Eastern and Western intellectual groups.

Diverse sources, found by change and by women photographer sources.

Women authors

Enheduanna (-2300 av JC)

Probably the most ancient literary author. Daughter of Sargon of Akkad, her father conquers Ur and names Enheduanna priestess of the prosperous Sumerian capital in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). An uprising drives her out and inspires the writing of “Temple Hymns”. This is an exceptional text: the oldest text whose author is known, and it’s a woman!

Sappho (-630)

We have very little sure knowledge about Sappho. Although over 100 ancient authors quoted her or spoke of her, we have only found one of her poems in its entirety: “Hymn to Aphrodite”. Debauchery? Homosexuality? Heterosexuality? Sappho’s teachings to the Thasos will be a true initiation to freedom for young women, who in society were not citizens, only wives, child-bearers, and homemakers.

Aspasie de Milet (-450)

Around 450 BC, she arrives in Athens. As a foreign woman, she can be independent and pay taxes and therefore participate in public debates. Muse to Pericles, she will become the center of intellectual life in Athens. She is cited, among others, in the writings of Plato and et Plutarco… Often depicted as courtesan and manipulator, Athenians’ admiration was due not only to her exceptional beauty but to her remarkable intelligence.

Sulpicia (-69)

Only female poetess from Ancient Rome whose work we have discovered. Her six elegies were published with the writings of Albius Tibullus, damaging her credibility as author; it will be contested for a long time. During the 18th century, Christian Gottlob Heyne, German erudite, confirms her status as author. Her poems offer a unique perspective of a woman’s gaze on other women.

Murasaki Shikibu (circa 978-1014)

As I walked the streets of Athens browsing my France Culture app, I selected “The Tale of Genji: the world’s first psychological novel.” A revelation!
Widowed young, she became a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court during the Heian period.
She wrote “The Tale of Genji,” which is considered the first novel in world literature, and it was written by a woman! Prose in Japanese was reserved for women, as men wrote in Sino-Japanese. Fictional prose was disregarded in favor of poetry. She was not a pioneer, but her “literary project” was. It consisted of a very long novel, over a thousand pages, blending love intrigues and exile at the court, non-consensual relationships, with descriptions of rare psychological acuity and a surprising self-irony, like a voice-over accompanying the main character. It is a bestseller known to all Japanese. Her writing was later celebrated by Marguerite Yourcenar who said: ” Whenever I am asked what woman novelist I admire the most the name Murasaki Shikibu comes immediately to my mind. I have extraordinary respect, indeed reverence, for her work […] she was the Marcel Proust of medieval Japan.”
In Chapter 40, the woman Genji loved most is gravely ill: “A violent wind had risen at dusk. Murasaki wanted to see the garden (…) Seeing the joy he (Genji) seemed to feel at the slightest improvement pained her. And to imagine the despair that would soon seize him, emotion overwhelmed her. (…)
Genji’s Poem: “What does it matter after all when everyone argues over the dew, for it will surely disappear soon.” He said, without even bothering to wipe away his tears.” Empress’s Poem: “This world where dew in the autumn wind cannot stay for a moment.”

Sources: Podcast “La Compagnie des œuvres,” February 15, 2023, « Le “Dit du Genji” 源氏物語 de Murasaki Shikibu, premier roman psychologique mondial ». Guest Estelle Bauer, professor at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations. Link: https://podcasts.apple.com/fr/podcast/la-compagnie-des-oeuvres/id1082325156?i=1000637279120

Louise Labé (1524-1566)

We only know 662 verses of her work. She belongs to the group referred to as “l’école lyonnaise” (“School of Lyon”), at the time an economic and cultural center thanks to its parlors and printing industry. Some doubts have been expressed: could her character be only fiction, elaborated by a group of poets? On another note, she was an important participant in having Sappho rediscovered.

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)

English aristocrat, writer, philosopher, and scientist. She is primarily known for her novel “The Blazing World”. Her defends her freedom to write, to publish poems and philosophical ideas as a woman : “The truth is, we [women] live like bats, or owls, labor like beasts, and die like worms.”  Criticized and ridiculed, she retreats to her estates.

Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Countess of Winchelsea, poetess, and English courtesan. She deplores the position of women in literature and within the court. She seeks psychological and spiritual equality between genders. She refers to other poets of the time, such as Aphra Behn and Katherine Phillips.

« Alas! a woman that attempts the pen, / Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteem’d, / The fault, can by no virtue be redeem’d. »

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859)

Born into an artisan family who will be ruined by the Revolution, she is a self-educated poet. Admired by Balzac, Baudelaire, Louis Aragon, she is, according to Verlaine, the only woman of talent and genius of the century. In 1819, she will publish a first collection: “Elégies, Marie et Romances”, characterized as innovative, making her a pioneer in romantic poetry.

Lou Andréas Salomé (1861-1937)

Russia, philosopher and free. She crosses Europe, pursuing intellectual encounters. She forms great friendships with Friedrich Nietzsche (who will seek to marry her), Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud. She will publish 20 books and 120 articles between 1895 and 1934. She will not want neither a tombstone, nor posthumous publications.

Catherine Pozzi (1882-1934)

Having lost her father prematurely, single and living with tuberculosis, she obtains her Baccalauréat at 37 years old. Divorced, she is in high contact and entertains a long relationship with Paul Valéry (who is already married). Only one poem will be published when she is alive (1929), followed by other after her death, thanks to attention, notably from Jean Paulhan (NRF) and André Gide. She will be one of the few women in the catalog “Poésie” by Gallimard, although the discipline had always been open to women.

Female composers

Khosrovidoukht de Goghtn (~710)

We know few things about her life, only that she was part of the royal family of an Armenian region. Rediscovered during the 19th century, we can credit her with the composition of « šarakan », (canonic hymn), « Zarmanali e Ints » (737), of which a beautiful modern recording has been made. One of the few examples of Armenian music with melodical development.

Listen here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELu2_Msb9Sw

Sahakdoukht de Sioumie (~720)

Sister of music theorist and Greek translator Stepanos Syunetsi. After his murder, she fell into a deep grief and decided to retreat to an ascetic life in a cave; there she produced ecclesiastical poems as well as liturgical chants. Sibil (Armenian author) notes in 1909, “1200 years ago the Armenian took great interest in women’s education. It may come as a surprise when I say that Stephan Siunetsi’s sister, Sahakdukht, established a music school in eighth-century Armenian; today such schools, which are the mark of a civilized nation, do not exist.”

Kassia (~810- 865)

Also known as Cassienne of Constantinople. Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer, she is one of the first medieval composers whose scores are both extant and able to be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians. Feminist before feminism’s time, she spotlights women and enhances their image in her hymns. For example, the sinner woman who kisses Jesus’s feet speaks and is not a prostitute. Committed to fight against ignorance through her texts, she writes: “there is absolutely no cure for stupidity”.

Listen here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1k_eKhTwvs

Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590)

Italian composer, lutenist, and singer of the late Renaissance. In 1568, she publishes in Venice her first book of madrigals for four voices: « Il primo libro di madrigali ». She is the first female composer to have had a whole book of her music printed and published in the history of western music. In 15701583 and 1586, she will publish other books of madrigals, all in Venice.

Listen here : https://www.musicme.com/#/Maddalena-Casulana/

Anna Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704)

At 16 years old, she enters a convent in Novara (Italy), of which her family is benefactor. The nuns are considered « sacred virgins », yet their musical talents are civic treasures, and their performances very popular. She is one of the most prolific composers of her time, writing approximately 200 compositions, of all genres, throughout her lifetime (in part printed by Gasparo Casati).

Listen here : https://www.musicme.com/#/Isabella-Leonarda/

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

Born in Paris, she studies piano and harmonics. She will marry a flutist, and music editor who will support her prolific production. Conservatory piano teacher, she fights for wage equality. She receives two Chartier Prizes (1861 and 1869), destined to reward excellent musical composition, awarded by the Institut de France. In 81 years (from 1861 to 1942) only two other women will receive this prize alongside Louise.

Listen here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7hAY1z4ncI

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847)

Due to her family’s reservations and German social conventions at the time, a certain number of her works will be published under her brother’s name, especially in opus collections 8 and 0. Sustaining family pressure, she only dares to publish her compositions one year before her death: a collection of songs under the title Opus 1 in 1846. For the past 30 years, her life and works are the subject of research restoring her brilliance.

Listen here : https://www.musicme.com/#/Fanny-Hensel-Mendelssohn/

Emilie Mayer (1812-1883)

Born in Friedland (now Germany), her financial independence allows her to dedicate herself to composing. Heiress, she finances her concerts herself, and finds great success. Nonetheless, no great German editor will publish her work, condemning her to be forgotten. Critic Flodoard Geyer will say: “What female forces, forces of the second order, are capable of – that has been achieved and reproduced by Emilie Mayer.” These words express the context of the time. She will composes 8 symphonies, chamber music… which are characterized by tone changes.

Listen here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmFHdH706Ms

Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)

German pianist and composer. In 1835, she composes a piano concerto, Opus 7, under the direction of Felix Mendelsshon. Her father will imagine for her a virtuoso’s international career and will oppose her marriage to Robert Schumann. Resisting against him, she marries Robert and has eight children. Too busy, she remains a pianist but hardly ever composes again. She will have composed mostly between the ages of 14 and 16.

Listen here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD6xhB4jS9s

Marie Jaëll (1846-1925)

Virtuoso composer and pianist, she is widowed at 35 years old. She studies composition with Cesar Franck and Camille Saint-Saens before becoming the first woman admitted to the “Société des Compositeurs de Paris” (Composer’s Society of Paris). Prolific, with more than 70 works, Liszt declares: “With a man’s name on your music, it would be on all pianos”. She seeks a deep reform of piano teaching, where automatism and repetition leave place to the “touch method”.

Listen here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9CrBiU62BA

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Born in Paris, her father refuses that she enters the conservatory. Therefore, she receives a private musical education. Virtuoso pianist, Georges Bizet will refer to her as “my little Mozart”. In 1908, her concert venues will be full in the United States and Canada. Composer of romantic style, her work is made up of 200 pieces for piano, symphonic works, a comic opera… her compositions will be played around the world.

Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oapbWP639z8

Amy Marcy Beach (1867-1944)

Born in New Hampshire, child prodigy, she is trained in piano by her mother, then by Ernst Perabo and Karl Barmann, in Boston. Prolific in composing, she signs her works under her husband’s name: “Mrs H.H.A. Beach”. She plays her productions on tour; one major tour will be around Europe between 1911 and 1914. Her symphony “Gaelic” is the first symphony composed and published by an American woman (1896). Her work of over 300 pieces includes all genres, except opera.

Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBkqCBe-EXk

List established first thanks to http://drama-musica.com/Blog/TheBigList.html

Then with suggestions from Laurence Equilbey (bandmaster) and the portraits of « La boîte à pépites » (original idea by Héloïse Luzzati).

Women activists

Françoise of Maintenon (1635-1719)

Famously mistress of Louis the 14th; however, her educative contributions are largely unknown. She leads the opening of the “Maison Royale de Saint Louis” in Saint Cyr. Founded the 15th of August 1684, it will be the first secular school of young women; its objectives are to provide a more extensive education than the one they received in convents, including arithmetic, grammar, history, language, art…

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

Leading figure of the French Revolution, her famous phrase: “woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum” is emblematic. She will fight for the right to vote, to divorce, to receive an education… She will write leaflets, flyers, and public plays (one play about slavery given at the Comédie Française will only be played once due to the tremendous scandal it will create). The cornerstone of her work is « La Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne » (« Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen »).

Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766-1817)

Novelist, philosopher, and daughter of Jacques Necker (Minister of Finance under Louis the 16th), she opens her own Salon in Paris. In 1802, the Consul Napoleon Bonaparte gives the order for her to be exiled, without a trial. One of her contemporaries will write: “three great powers in Europe are at work to counter Napoleon: England, Russia and Madame de Staël”. Her “Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution” is one of the foundations of revolutionary historiography.

Sophie de Condorcet (1763-1822)

Born Sophie Marie Louise de Grouchy, she will marry philisopher Nicolas de Condorcet. She opens a philosophy parlor in 1787 and welcomes many philosophers of the Enlightenment. She will have an important role in her husband’s understanding of feminism; he will write: “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” (published the 3rd of July 1790.)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Schoolteacher and philosopher most known for « A Vindication of the Rights of Woman » (1792), un pamphlet against the patriarchal society of her time and women’s lack of education. After her death, her husband William Godwin will publish « Memoirs » (about the liberated life his wife had led) which will have a devastation impact of Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation for a century to come. Throughout the modern feminist movement, Virginia Woolf, or Emma Goldman will take hold of her story and celebrate her “life experiences”.

Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858)

English philosopher and feminist. She marries John Stuart Mill whose work she will influence. In particular, she will encourage the gender neutrality of his writing: systematically replacing “man” or “he” by “person” or “people”. Mill will suggest an amendment to the Reform Act of 1867: to replace “man” by “person”; if it had been accepted, it would have given suffrage rights to women. She seeks to establish equality between men and women in education, marriage, and before the law.

Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898)

Very young, she is imprisoned for having breached the « Fugitive Slave Act », law criminalizing offering assistance to slaves. Women’s suffragist, she signs, alongside Lillie Devereux Blake, the “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States” in 1876. She collaborates with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to the drafting of « History of Woman Suffrage » (1881–1887).

Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914)

Two of her actions represent her convictions and great common sense. In 1880, she attempts to register on electoral lists at the town hall of the 10th district of Paris. In the official newspaper, she advocates for all “persons” omitted from the list to demand their registration (“person” being a term including both men and women). Next, tax boycott: she refuses to pay taxes, as the expression “all French people” excludes her when it comes to voting. Additionally, she will ask for the “feminization” of words such as “témoin”. (witness), “avocat” (lawyer), “élécteur” (elector), “député” (member of parliament), all roles forbidden for women.

Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947)

From a wealthy family, she is married at 13 years old, and 2 years later her husband will impose cohabitation with another woman. She leaves and advances her education for 7 years, then returns to conjugal life. President of the Egyptian Feminist Union, her intention is to “not lose anything of the tender protection of Islam” while advancing women’s status in society. Strong gesture: in May 1923, upon her return to Rome (for the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance), she removes her veil and avoids stoning by the crowds.

Eileen Power (1889-1940)

Leader of the History of Medieval Economics at LSE (London School of Economics). In her book “Medieval Women”, she uses history (her study of women, their social and economic position in the 13th and 14th centuries), as her claim. She questions the truth of established sources and how men of superior social rank can have any idea about the daily life of women.

Gisèle Halimi (1927-2020)

Feminist activist, she is the only signatory lawyer of the Manifesto of the 343, reuniting, in 1971, women having aborted and demanding free access to abortion (at the time illegal in France). She and Simone de Beauvoir found the movement “Choisir la cause des femmes” (« To Choose the Cause of Women »), to fight for the depenalization of abortion. Throughout her life, she will continue to fight for her beliefs, contributing for example in defining rape as a crime rather than a “criminal offense” under French law.

List established primarily thanks to the book « Les mots des femmes » by Mona Ozouf (1995).

Women scientists

Hypatia (~360-415)

Greek Neo-Platonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician from Alexandria.It is difficult to say exactly what she produced, yet she seems to be the first female scientist of Antiquity whose trace we have kept! Notably, history recorded her tragic death, murdered by a crowd on Easter 415.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

A French woman, one of the first female mathematicians, she liaised with the most influential of the time (Gauss, Lagrange, etc.). The first woman to have won the Grand Prize of the “Académie des Sciences”, for her work on vibrations of elastic surfaces. She will work primarily on Fermat’s theorem, which she did not prove, but made important contributions to.

Ada Byron de Lovelace (1815-1852)

English mathematician, she invented the first algorithm, and thus would be the pioneer of computer science. She “reinterpreted” Charles Babbage’s very mechanical machines, by understanding that one can give an abstract function to manipulated objects to make them into algorithms. Some say that Babbage invented it all. This is a rare case where a woman is recognized for the discovery of a man!

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891)

A Russian mathematician, and the first female university professor in mathematics. She proved a very important result about the existence and unicity of a solution to equations with partial derivatives.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Austrian physician, her story is astonishing: she will work with Otto Hahn in Nazi Germany. Together, they succeed in the first fission of the Uranium atom (which led to the atomic bomb, nuclear power plants etc.). As she is Jewish, Hahn suggests that she escapes Germany, which she will do. After her departure, Hahn sends their works, under only his name, to Nature, where they will be published. He received the Nobel Prize, she did not.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Polish physician and chemist, she is the first woman to receive a Nobel prize, and the only to receive two, in different disciplines no less. These are: in 1903, with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, the Nobel prize in physics for their research on radiations (radioactivity, natural particle radiation); in 1911, the Nobel prize in chemistry for her works on polonium and radium.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

Her life is a novel. She is recognized by the greatest as “the most important mathematician in the history of mathematics”. Her primary work, a continuation of Madame du Chatelet’s work, is Noether’s theorem: the basis of all modern physics. Prodigious, it simply states: “every physical system that has properties of symmetry has an associated conservation law.”

Inge Lehmann (1888-1993)

Danish seismologist, she will make exceptional contributions to the understanding of structure, composition and dynamics of the Earth’s mantle and core. She will discover, by analyzing seismic waves, that the Earth has a solid inner core, and fluid outer core.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979)

Anglo-American astronomer, she makes an incredible discovery: stars are made of hydrogen and helium. At the start, it is considered absurd, as it enters in contradiction with theories from an established astronomer of the time. Despite her exceptional work, she will have to wait many years to be named professor at Harvard, as it was simply forbidden.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

British chemical physicist, she uses an X-Ray diffraction method to photograph the structure of the DNA (renowned Photograph 51). Yet, James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick, helped by Raymond Gosling, borrow the photo. They use it as the basis for their article published in Nature, to which they owe their Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

This list was established by Jérôme Legras (Polytechnique graduate and mathematician). He said : “every time or almost, clearly, we see a similar story: great difficulty in having their work accepted, to obtain a role at a university (or ever a degree), have their work stolen by a man…”

Women photographers

Anna Children-Atkins (1799-1871)

English botanist, designer, and pioneer of the cyanotype. In 1839, she joins the Botanical Society of London, one of the few learned societies open to women. Her herbarium, « British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions » elaborated from 1843 to 1953, is the first book entirely illustrated with photography.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)

Her children gave her a camera for Christmas so she could try “to photograph during her solitude at Freshwater” (Isle of Wight). She was 48 years old, her children grown and her a long journey. She created a groundbreaking style! She immediately had the intuition to make photographic art, focusing solely on portraits. However, her approach remains conventional: men’s portraits reflected their social status; women’s their beauty.
Considered an eccentric and a rare female artist in Victorian society, her career was short, 10 years, yet prolific, with about 2,000 known photographs. Her work never fell into oblivion: prints were purchased during her lifetime by the Victoria & Albert Museum, then, the Pre-Raphaelite movement and her descendants, including the famous 1926 text by her great-niece, Virginia Woolf, contributing to her legacy.
Notable work: “The Annunciation,” 1864, inspired by Giotto’s frescoes, plays with composition and drapery. From the beginning, she positioned herself within the pictorial tradition, not the photographic one. She traveled and saw all the classic paintings, in Florence and elsewhere. She played with blurs, with sharpness sometimes focused only on the light in the hair, going against the style of contemporary photography, which sought clarity and the replication of reality.

Source: Exhibition at the Jeu de Paume Museum, 2023.

Mary Dillwyn (1816-1906)

Photographer of the first candid photography and sister of John Dillwyn Llewelyn, inventor of the “Oxymel Process” (allowing collodion negatives to be prepared and preserved over several days to avoid the portable photo lab). Her portraits are very natural, due to the choice of small formats and short exposure times. She will be the author of the first smiling portrait.

Geraldine Moodie (1854-1945)

Self-taught photographer, and police officer’s wife, she takes advantage of their many travels due to her husband’s foreign assignments to document indigenous peoples, from the Canadian border to the Arctic. She creates a beautiful series of Inuit women’s portraits. Hyper-professional, she signs her productions, registers copyrights, and negotiates official contracts.

Christina Broom (1862-1939)

Is recognized as “the first female press photographer in the United Kingdom”. Anchored in her time, she photographs advertising material for the Woman’s Sunday, suffragette marches, among which the demonstration rally of the 23rd of July 1910, where 10 000 women assembled. She places the lens close to her subjects, creating a dramatic effect.

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)

Purchases her first camera at the age of 22. She diligently photographs nude bodies, depicted in a naturalistic light. In 1915, she photographs her husband: a nude male under the lens and gaze of a woman scandalizes Seattle! She removes the negatives from public circulation for over 50 years. She writes in 1912 “Photography as a Profession for Women”, demonstrating that women can become great photographers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978)

Incredible photomontages, incorporating images found in the media where the woman is object of desire. Raoul Haussmann’s lover, she is the only women in the band Dada Berlin.

Annapurna Dutta (1894-1976)

Among the first women photographers in Bengal, India, to have lived off her photography. In 1920, she made a self-portrait with her camera obscura, which will become a precious archive document.

Lucia Moholy (1894-1989)

Under her lens, graphic compositions of architecture or objects in a Bauhaus esthetic, are often used to promote school education. Wife of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, her works are distributed without credit: she will take legal action to recover her negatives. Also a theoretician, she will publish “A hundred Years of Photography” (1939).

Germaine Krull (1897-1985)

Said to be the “Photographer of Modernity”, she creates hyper-graphic images: metallic structures, dramatic angle framing and low angle view. She will spend her last years in India, having converted to Buddhism.

Voula Papaioannou (1898-1990)

Brings a female view of war. Afflicted, she photographs the civilian population rather than the combat during the 1940 war in Greece. Throughout her entire life, she will focus on her country, her sorrows and hopes.

Cosette Harcourt (1900-1976)

Born Germaine Hirschfeld, daughter of German immigrants at the end of the 19th century, she is the photographer and portraitist to whom we owe the famous Studio Harcourt. Her shots sublimate faces, through lighting and blurring tricks. She will produce legendary portraits of celebrities.

Françoise Nuñez (1957-2021)

The beautiful Andalusia who married a family friend, Bernard Plossu. She photographs in black and white, using a 50 mm lens, mainly in Asia and South America. “I practically only photograph when traveling. And when I leave, I just think about it,” she tells the newspaper La Dépêche in 2012. “I want to be receptive to everything, far from everyday life and places that I know too well. I like the unexpected, the surprise, the emotion of discovery. And try to make all these emotions felt.”

This list was established thanks to the suggestions of Bernard Plossu (friend and photographer) ; thanks to the catalogues « Qui a peur des femmes photographes ? » (Éditions M/O’, 2015) and « Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes (Éditions Textuel, 2020) ; as well as AWARE (Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions) association’s website.

Venetian and Italian Women

Laura Cereta (1469-1499)

Humanist and feminist, the majority or her writings are correspondences. Young widow, she begins a career as a professor of philosophy at the University of Padua. In 1488, she assembles 82 letters into one work, introduced by a burlesque dialogue about the death of a donkey. This manuscript is distributed under the title “d’Epistolae familiars”. She is criticized for having “presumed that her intellectual abilities were equal to those of men”! Her manuscript will only be publish in the 17th century.

Veronica Gambara (14851550)

found thanks to Simone de Beauvoir

Poet and political leader, she learns to read and write poetry in Latin. From the age of 17, she is in contact with the poet Pietro Bembo, who will become her mentor. She will express her grief through poetry. She will play an active role in the military defense of the province on Correggio, during the war between Francis the 1st and Charles Quint. She will address poems about the need for peace to leaders of countries at war.

Vittoria Colonna (14901547)

Influenced by humanism, she was born into the influential roman family of Colonna. Surrounded by artists and “of faultless mores” (terms used in her biographies), she will befriend and become the subject of Michelangelo’s admiration. Attentive to the ideas of the Reform and in contact with the most renown literary references, she will be celebrated by Ludovico Ariosto in a work of 38,000 verses that will be distributed around Europe from 1532. In mourning, she publishes “Rhyme”, which with be prominent during the 16th century, then forgotten.

Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554)

After the death of her father, her family settles in Venice. Gaspara grows up in cultured circles, the “ridotti”, however the opinion of Venetians was very critical towards women living independently. From merchant courtesan, she becomes the lover of a count. “Rime d’amore” is her journal about five years of passion, which will be published six months after her death. Venice was one of the biggest printing hubs at the time. She is one of the rare women published in the “Poetry” catalogue by Gallimard, although the discipline was open to women.

Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi (1760-1836)

Author and art amateur, she marries Carlo Antonio Marin at the age of 16, and settles in Venice. She holds a literary parlor attended by Antonio Casanova, Vittorio Alfieri, Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël and Lord Byron… The latter will describe her as “the Staël of Venice; (…) very cultured, simple, and natural (…). We owe to her an excellent work about the work of Canova, as well as a volume of Characters, among other works”.

Marie Caroline de Berry (1798-1870)

A life between tragedy and Vaudeville. Born princess of Naples and Sicily, she marries the second son of the king of France, who dies in an attack. Mother of the last male heir of the house of Bourbon, she initiates for him an insurrection in France. Arrested, she gives birth in prison which scandalizes: the father is unknown! She will become the patron and muse of Alexandre Dumas and Chateaubriand. Said to be untamable, she rides horses wearing trousers and initiates the craze of sea swimming.

Pauline Craven de La Ferronnays (1808-1891)

An ambassador’s daughter, her family settles in Italy after Saint-Petersburg and Paris. In 1866, she publishes her first book: «The Story of a Sister, Family Memories”. It will be recognized by the “Académie Française” and lead to over 25 re-editions in six years. Many novels and essays will follow, particularly appreciated by the Catholic culture.

Olimpia Savio di Bernsteil (1815-1889)

Writer and poet, she hosts one of the most popular parlors of Turin, which was then the capital. Her journal comprised of nine volumes, accounts of the anxieties of a woman, which were published as a book posthumous. She was very close to many Italian personalities. Considered “among the most intelligent women of her time”, she educates herself as according to the myth, reading at nighttime and stashing her books under her mattress.

Anna Maria Mozzoni (1837-1920)

Journalist and major figure for the suffragette movement in Italy. She publishes “Woman and Her Social Relationships on the Occasion of the Revision of the Italian Civil Code” in 1864, a critique of the tradition Italian family. “Dean of Italian feminism”, she demands equality within families, the right to property, access to education and to work, as well as protection for female workers.

Tina Modotti (1896-1942)

A Romanesque and dramatic life, influenced by social issues and politics. Born in Udine, very poor, she immigrates to the United States to Los Angeles and becomes the lover of Edward Weston (renowned photographer). In Mexico, she embraces communism, then, expelled from the country, she moves to Moscow, becomes involved in the Spanish War, before ending photography permanently to dedicate herself to activism.

List established thanks to the suggestion of Venetian friends, among whom Alain Lardet, or discovered in « The Second Sex » by Simone de Beauvoir