Pardon this late post! Spotty wifi and a bus trip to London has given me some extra time to think about Paris; hope this is worth the wait! 🙂
Wednesday was a hard day. In the construction of this trip, I had planned France to be a liberating point in lining up with Gilligan’s work, a place where we found women on the brink of autonomy. Sure, they were still in the struggle to have work recognized, but overall traction is gaining and life is moving forward. Instead we found the marks of women and them labeled under the banner brotherhood, angels, and demons. We found women above and below and not at the table.
Yesterday was a little brighter, a little more hopeful.
We began at Versailles, the home of the French court and a one Marie Antoinette just a few centuries ago. Marie was married off to the French Dauphin when she was just 14; all things Austrian stripped from her so that she could be at one with her new country. She fell under criticism for 7 years when no children were born, bearing the brunt of the blame. When she finally had children, the first was a girl before the son, again she had failed. She became a symbol of all that was wrong with the monarch: an out of touch, wealthy, and spoiled woman naive to the subjects below her. Though, most of this was twisted and presented by the media- and they’ve never done this to a woman since.
Marie’s story is one in which she’s demonized often, her worst qualities paraded for us as a tale of caution.
Below to corrupt.
But there has been a movement in recent years to come to her defense, to see her as human. She became queen at a young age and was sheltered from the world around her. In Austrian nobility they grew up wealthy, but simply, the French court and culture took getting used to. She loved her children dearly and tried desperately to be a good mother, defamed for even this at the end in the midst of her trial.
As I continued to look at the cities I had outlined for the fellowship, I continued to look for more women, more places to remember people. Earlier this year I began googling tours in each city focused on women, and nothing came up. The closest was a suffragette tour that I felt was overpriced and the reviews weren’t stellar. And then an ad popped up for “Women of Paris” tour- too good to be true, right?
We met Heidi, the founder of the Women of Paris walk, yesterday near the Pantheon for a 2 1/2 hour walk dubbed the essential tour. Heidi’s been a guide for a few years in Paris and began almost immediately to notice the lack of female presence in the history presented. So she’s done something about it. She shared about women we met yesterday and so many others I knew little to nothing about: St. Geneviève, Josephine Baker, Simone Veil, Maria Medici, Catherine Medici, and more. We walked by the house where Colette was kept by her husband who forced her to write books that he then took the credit and wealth for. We stood by the table in Les Deux Magots where Simone de Beauvoir worked. Heidi showed us the first female publishing house as well as the prison where Marie Antoinette spent her final days.
At the end of the tour, she told us how only 2% of streets in Paris have been named after women, and when a group of women discovered this a few years ago, they did something about it. All of Paris woke up the next morning to street signs changed to Rue du Beauvoir and Rue du Curie. The whispers of their stories given voice and named in broad daylight.
The signs eventually came down, but the story remains and the problem was brought to the table. It’s not about street signs, but rather a culture that welcomes all stories as valuable.
A couple of days ago I checked out The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, who wrote the essay “Grandmother Spider”. In this collection, she explores the nature of silence vs quiet; quiet a choice and silence a decree from power. In particular, she is concerned with the silence of women and she quotes an Ursula Le Gain commencement address given at Bryn Mawr in 1986. It’s a beautiful quote, but I’ll save it for later; instead, I looked up the commencement address to read last night after our day and want to share something Ursula quotes instead in her speech:
“So I end with the end of a poem by Linda Hogan of the Chickasaw people, called “The Women Speaking.” ‘Daughters, the women are speaking / They arrive / over the wise distances / on perfect feet. / Daughters, I love you.'”
When I read these last lines of Linda’s poem that Ursula quotes who is then quoted in Solnit’s essays after a day at Versailles with Sarah sharing about Marie and then Heidi walking us through Paris to share again the stories of Josephine Baker, Marie Curie, the Medici women, Gertrude Stein, and St. Geneviève, this is what I believe I see and learn in Paris:
So much of this rests on us to pick up the banner and keep telling stories so they are not ghosts in the silence. We must tell the stories of women and others who haven’t been invited to the table such as people of color, people of poverty, and more. The stories must be told time and time again so that our canon of possibilities and opportunities is stretched and lengthened to a table we can all sit at. We must tell their stories prophetically, stand on their shoulders and lift others to stand on our own, to see over mountains set before us to something better.
One of my favorite things about Marie Antoinette is the small ways she advocated for other women who were friends. Her favorite painter was Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, and because of the queen’s patronage, Le Brun was taken more seriously as an artist and asked to paint other subjects. I know that Marie is complicated- as every person is- but I appreciate this friendship and the steps she gave in her power to someone else.
At Versailles, the queen’s quarters were closed yesterday (they’re doing renovations) so I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to as the Le Brun pieces there. When we went to Petit Trianon, we saw them. More than that, we saw a place where Marie had tried to carve a world for herself in the sphere she was allowed, a “simpler” house and farm and gardens, away from Versailles’s monument to man and king.
After a hard Wednesday where it felt like the weariness of allegory was going to kill me, I’m thankful for the historians and for our guide, Heidi, who in all of the places of Versailles and Paris and the world say “Daughters, they are speaking.” Hopefully we learn to listen, we listen with love, and we name people as who they truly are and are meant to be. May we do this with all of the women we know and don’t know in our history, and let’s teach students to do the same.