Whether you’re a tourist or a local, one of the best ways to learn about the history of a city is to go on a guided walking tour. Paris is arguably one of the most beautiful and walkable cities. It’s no surprise that the City of Light has themed walking tours for nearly every taste.
When Heidi Evans arrived in Paris in 2014 as a graduate student from London, she immediately fell in love with the city and all its beauty and history. Working as a tour guide for two years, she showed many tourists the Parisian sites and described the luminaries that make up the city’s long history.
She started to wonder: why were only men talked about? Where were all the incredible women who lived here? What was life like for them? How is it that of the 6,000 city streets in Paris, 4,000 were named after men, and only 300 after women?
Her curiosity bloomed into an idea to create Women of Paris Walks, a one-of-a-kind Paris walking tour that celebrates women. Her research revealed an abundance of women who have excelled in every field, from literature and art to fashion and science, including Colette, Sylvia Beach, Marie Curie, George Sand, and more. So many of them were overshadowed by their husbands (or partners and lovers), forgotten and overlooked, and never given their due recognition.
INSPIRELLE is pleased to partner with Women of Paris Walks and one of Heidi’s signature walks, Sugar & Space and Women Who Write, for our members and partners. The setting for this walking tour is Saint-Germain-des-Prés, renowned for its literary, intellectual, and artistic roots. INSPIRELLE caught up with Heidi as she talks about the invisibility of women in Paris history and how it inspired her to make Paris tourism more inclusive.
What inspired you to create a walking tour in Paris devoted exclusively to the role women played in French history and in modern times?
I was initially inspired to create the first Women of Paris walking tour in order to rebalance the city’s narrative. At the time it seemed as though the Paris history was dominated by these so-called “great men” and “bad women.” The great men being the likes of Napoleon, Louis 14th and Victor Hugo and the bad women were “evil” queens such as Marie Antoinette and Catherine de Medici.
Women’s stories and contributions were either being distorted to fit this dichotomy or neglected altogether. After putting together one really lengthy tour, however, it became clear to me that one tour was clearly not going to be enough to share the breadth of these stories. Today, therefore, we offer a number of different tours that explore different themes but all with a shared aim of illuminating the impact of women on the city.
If French history glorifies the role of men, how did you go about finding and researching women’s contributions to France?
I already had an idea about some of the women and the stories I wanted to share. Many of these were about women who had been written about in great detail so it wasn’t hard to find lots of information on them. The problem was more that their stories weren’t being told. For others, like the aforementioned Catherine de Medici, I was able to delve into research by revisionist historians and find a more balanced account of her life and legacy.
How have women been portrayed in French history, culture and the arts?
I would argue that up until recently women have largely been portrayed as muses, wives and mistresses.
They have all too often been sidelined and forced into supporting roles instead of taking center stage as the protagonists of their own stories.
One explanation for this could be the fact that revolutionary French society wanted to keep women in the private sphere, believing their attributes were best suited to the home. Under Napoleon wives actually became the legal property of their husbands, a law that would stay in place right up until the 1960s.
Another explanation perhaps is the fact that France has never had any “great” women leading the country. On the other hand, the “French woman” is a universally recognized trope: slim, stylish and effortlessly sexy. Some even argue that this image of the French woman originated with Marie Antoinette. We allow Marie Antoinette to be attractive but we cannot have her making any decisions because just look how that ended up….
Who are your favorite heroines in France that you feature on your exclusive walks?
There are many! I think I like the rebels the best: Colette, George Sand, Josephine Baker, Olympe de Gouges. The women who weren’t afraid of a bit of scandal and refused to stay in their boxes.
Marie-Antoinette, Madame Marie Curie and Josephine Baker. These three, iconic women were non-French at birth but left indelible marks on French history. Are there many exceptional women like them?
Indeed, there are! Sylvia Beach is another great example. The owner and founder of the original Shakespeare and Co. and the first person to publish Ulysses. She has been described as doing the work of a great ambassador who united four cultures—England, Ireland, America and France. Similarly, she was seen as a bee for the “cross-pollination” of cultures. The problem is that Sylvia herself is often left out of the story of Shakespeare and Co. All too often, the famous (male) clients of the bookshop dominate the narrative (Hemmingway, James Joyce, etc.) whilst the woman who started it all is forgotten.
Can you share with us the itinerary for one of your walks in Paris and what we can learn from it?
A brand new tour that we’ll be launching this spring explores women’s role in the revolution of 1789 and how the aftermath of this tumultuous and pivotal event has impacted the lives and experiences of French women today. The tour takes place in the historic Marché d’Aligre and along the way we also get the chance to meet some of the women who work in the market today, hearing from them about their struggles and experiences and also tasting the fruits of their labor. We learn how women are very often at the forefront of responding to social and political issues, one of today’s most preoccupying being the climate crisis.
The Paris 2024 marathon route that leads to the Chateau de Versailles and back to Paris is inspired by the Women’s March of 1789 to overthrow the monarchy. How has the revolutionary Marianne evolved into today’s French woman?
La Marianne is supposed to represent the people. It was a working-class name given to an allegorical woman used to symbolize the ordinary French folk who had thrown off the shackles of an oppressive society. She wears the Phrygian cap to demonstrate her newfound freedom. At the time of Marianne’s birth as the symbol of the new republic, women were not free, however. They were still shackled by the laws of a society that kept them in their place as mothers or mistresses. Marianne is merely a muse; a bare-breasted male fantasy dreamt up by Delacroix, a shirtless, voiceless symbol.
The women’s liberation movement that began in the 20th century in France saw women having to wrestle their own freedom from a republican society that had oppressed and ignored them. Freedom to vote, to lobby, to use contraceptives and have access to abortion. Marianne is only two-dimensional, a fairer and more representative image of French women today must also have a voice.
What is your favorite place in Paris that you like to visit when you are not working?
There are so many! I love the canal Saint Martin, particularly in the spring when the leaves are out and everyone is sitting by the water. I love wandering the winding streets of Montmartre or South Pigalle, perusing a pop-up flea market or discovering a new café. Even after 9 years, the city continues to surprise and delight.