8 Famous Francophone Women You Should Know

Following the celebration of la journée internationale de la Francophonie and International Women's Day this month,  here are 8 Francophone women who made an impact and a difference in our society.

Women are a driving force behind a lot of change in our society. This month let us celebrate these amazing Francophone women who made a huge impact during their lifetime and shaped society as we know it today.

Coco Chanel

Fashion Icon

 

Coco Chanel was born in Saumar, France on August 19, 1883 as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. A rags to riches story, she was born into a poor family and after her mother died, was brought to an orphanage by her father to be raised by nuns. There, she was taught how to sew; the skill that would bring her great success throughout her life.

She was the type of person that did not let her circumstance get in the way of her dream. With her limited resources and connections, she was able to acquire a network of wealthy friends, and lovers (often married). One in particular was Boy Capel, who supported her endeavours and enabled her to set up her own shop in Paris. With her hard work, dedication, and vision, she turned her tiny shop into an empire of women's fashion, and herself into a timeless style icon. 

Her sense of style revolutionised women's fashion. She shifted the designs to simple lines and comfortable clothing, borrowing elements from men's fashion,  but keeping the elegant silhouette of women. Her trademark Chanel suit, the  "little black dress", and her signature perfume Chanel No. 5, made her a worldwide fashion icon where the elegance of her style is still relevant and well loved up to today.

 

Marie Curie 

Scientist

 

Marie Curie achieved many firsts in her lifetime. She was the first woman to ever receive the Nobel Prize and the first person to receive a Nobel Prize twice. She was also the first person to hold a teaching position at the Sorbonne and she, along with her husband and her children, made discoveries that had world significance.

Originally from Warsaw, Poland, Marie Curie was born Manya Salomee Sklodowska on November 7, 1867. The youngest of five children, she belonged to a family who prioritised the education of all their children which lead her to love the sciences. She moved to Paris in 1891 to study at the Sorbonne, where she obtained her degree in Physics and Mathematical Science. There, she met her husband to be, Pierre Curie, who was a Professor in the School of Physics. 

Marie Curie, and her husband Pierre, worked together and discovered polonium and radium. Following the discoveries of Henri Becquerel, they also discovered a phenomenon that will later be called "radioactivity". Years later, she would work on the technology for X-radiography with her daughter Irène. When she passed in 1995, her ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris, a first for any woman, and her old laboratory and institue are preserved as the Curie Museum.

 

 

Edith Piaf

Singer

 

Edith Giovanna Gassion, stage name Edith Piaf, was born in Belleville, Paris, on December 19, 1915. She was a singer-songwriter and an actress, a beloved icon in France, and one of the most well known French singers of all time. Her life was not easy and tragedy followed her from birth until her death. Though internally there was turmoil, she never ceased to sing and to look at life with rose coloured glasses and in the end, she regretted nothing.

In 1935, Edith Piaf was discovered by Louis Leplée, the owner of the popular cabaret Le Gerny, while performing in the streets of Paris hoping to earn some money. Due to her small stature (she was less than 5ft tall) and petite frame, she was nicknamed La Môme Piaf ("The Little Sparrow") which would be a name she would keep for he rest of her life. From there, her career would soar, writing her own music like the timeless song La Vie en Rose, and working with famous songwriters like Marguerite Monnot (Hymne à l'amour), Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire (Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien). Meanwhile her personal life was a mix of tragic losses and torrid love affairs which led to a drug addiction and consequently her death in 1963.

Edith Piaf had an exceptional voice that expressed agony and hope, and spoke to millions of people all over the world. From the streets of Paris to the international stage, her voice, her songs, and her memory, continues to live on.

 

 

Marie Antoinette

Queen

 

In August 1792, Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, was sent to the guillotine for crimes against the country. At the time of her death, she was reviled by the people of France. Some say she was the reason for the downfall of the French monarchy. Others would argue that ultimately, she was a victim of circumstance and became a scapegoat for everything that was going wrong with France. 

Born in Vienna, Austria on November 2, 1755, her real name was Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna von Österreich-Lothringen. That changed to Marie-Antoinette-Josèphe-Jeanne d’Autriche-Lorraine when she became queen consort to King Louis the XVI at the age of 14.  Her extravagant spending, lavish parties, and over the top fashion, led the people of France to call her Madame Déficit and she was always the target of ridicule in the tabloids. Though it was true that her spending was extravagant, it had little effect to the bankruptcy of the country as the country was fighting multiple wars and the finances were poorly managed by her husband and his council. In 1792, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antionette were sent to the guillotine and became the last King and Queen of France.

Today, Marie Antoinette has became a story of legend, inspiring art, fiction, and even pop culture references. Is she a person to be pitied or reviled? Did a young princess from Vienna ultimately cause the demise of the French monarchy? Her tragic but glamorous history has made her a persona that is difficult to ignore.

 

Jeanne d'Arc

Hero/Saint

 

Born from a peasant family in 1412, Jeanne d'Arc (anglicized as Joan of Arc), was born during a time of turmoil in what is now called the Hundred Years' War.  The English, under King Henry V, and their French Allies the Burgundians, claimed the crown of France and disinherited the French Crown Prince Charles of Valois. They occupied most of northern France including her hometown Domrémy, where many were forced to abandon their homes under threat of invasion.

As early as 13 years old, she had a vision and a divine command to fight for the King of France, Charles of Valois, against the English and the Burgundians. With that vision, she took a vow of chastity and refused any matches of marriage made by her Father. At the age of 16, she became a commander in the French army and lead France to numerous victories against the French in Orléans and neighbouring cities. Because of her success, Charles of Valois was crowned in Reims and became Charles VII, King of France. The war with the English however was not over and she wanted to continue the fight to reclaim Paris. Charles VII however did not support her, due to fear that she was becoming too powerful, and left her to fight in Paris alone. She was defeated in Paris, captured and sold to the English. 

For the English, the idea of a woman leading an army and winning could only be caused by the devil so in 1431, at the age of 19, Jeanne d'Arc was tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake. Even before her sainthood in 1920, Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orléans, was already seen as a hero of France, and a symbol of French unity and nationalism. On May 30 of each year, France celebrates her feast day and a parade in her honour is held in Orléans, the city she freed.

 

Josephine Baker

Entertainer/Activist

 

Freda Josephine McDonald, born on June 3, 1906 at St. Louis, Missouri, USA was a singer, dancer, and over all entertainer, famous for her flamboyant and risqué performances. In the 1920s, she moved to France and took Paris by storm, even becoming a top star in the famous Folies-Bergère. Because of the colour of her skin, she was ignored in her home country but was adored in France so much so that in 1973, she became a naturalised French citizen. Throughout her career as an entertainer, it is believed she became the wealthiest black woman alive.

During the German occupation of France, she aided the French Resistance by passing messages she heard while performing in front of the enemy. Her active role with the Resistance garnered her the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was also named Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, the highest order of merit for military and civil action.

After the war, she would visit the US frequently to fight with her fellowmen about racism and discrimination. In a famous speech during the 1963 March of Washington (the same event Martin Luther King Jr. said his speech "I Have a Dream"), she said: 

"You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents.  And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad."

She would continue to be an activist and performer until her death in 1975. More than 20,000 people attended her funeral procession and the French government honoured her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman to receive French military honours.

 

Celine Dion

Singer

 

Céline Marie Claudette Dion was born on March 30, 1968 in Charlemagne, Quebec, Canada. A prodigy of song, she was discovered by impresario René Angélil when she was 12—who became her manager and then eventually her husband in 1994.

At the beginning of her career, Celine Dion sang only in French and became an award winning and best-selling artist in France and Europe, and even won an award in Japan. Her album D'eux, released in 1995, became the best selling Francophone album of all time.

She broke through the Anglophone world in 1990 with her album Unison. Afterwards, she gained worldwide recognition with her duet with Peabo Bryson for "Beauty and the Beast"  which would win a Grammy Award and an Academy Award. In November 1997, Titanic was released and her single “My Heart Will Go On" probably her most well known and most sung song, won the Oscar for Best Original Song in the 70th Academy Awards. 

In 2016, her husband and the manager of her career René Angélil, passed away. It was heartbreaking. But to honour his memory, and to honour herself as an artist, she continues sing, to spend time with her family, and no matter what happens, she always says, "the show must go on". Celine Dion continues to thrive with multiple international album releases and live concerts.

 

Marjane Satrapi

Writer/Director

 

Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian writer, artist, and director, who created the graphic novel series, and the movie, Persepolis. The story of Persepolis is an autobiographical account of her life in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, her exile in Europe, and her eventual move to France. Though French is not her first language, all her books are written in French with the hopes that the European audiences can have a glimpse of what truly happened, or is happening, in her home country, and how immigrants adjust and adapt to a new one.

Her book Persepolis has now been translated to different languages including English and Spanish. It was turned into an animated film which she co-wrote and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud. It won the Jury Prize in Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In 2019, she directed a film called Radioactive - a film about Marie Curie starring Rosemund Pike.

 

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