A Study of Historical French Women Inspires Cross-Collaboration

Written by Josiane Mariette, Upper School French and Arabic teacher and Language Department Chair.

When I was awarded the Reed Fellowship for excellence in teaching, I began searching for an opportunity that focuses on the empowerment of women. I discovered a program at The Sorbonne University, a one-week seminar on the role of French women in French history and their influence on politics, diplomacy, the arts and literature. I took advantage of this great opportunity to enhance my teaching practices and enrich the French curriculum.

The seminar highlighted numerous themes such as: the role of French women in the history of France; their contributions to diplomacy; the evolution of the perception of the female body; the perception of the Parisian woman between myth and reality and the specificities of female writing.

These women were influential during important moments in the history of France, such as the French Revolution of 1789, World War II and those who played a prominent role in the French Resistance during the German occupation and the transformation of French society after the events of May 1968 to the present day. This included Madame de Pompadour, one of the most influential women of 18th century France and a member of the court of King Louis XV, having been close to the king and his advisor. There was Marie-Louise d’Autriche, whose marriage to Napoléon I helped to establish a period of peace between Austria and the French Empire. We discussed Marie Curie, the famous Nobel Prize winning physicist and Chemist, having won the Nobel prize twice.

We talked about Olympe de Gouges, a women’s rights advocate who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen in 1791. She promoted the equality of men and women and was later executed by guillotine. Simone de Beauvoir was a feminist philosopher and the famous writer of Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), discussing the realities of women throughout history. Anne Hidalgo is the current Mayor of Paris and first woman to hold this position. We also discussed Simone Veil, a French stateswoman and a survivor of the Holocaust who became a lawyer, politician and Minister of Health. She was the first woman elected president of the European Parliament who became a member of the Constitutional Council of France, and of the prestigious French Academy.

My Advanced Topics French 5 students read Simone Veils’ autobiography, Une vie, and learned about her unimaginable personal experience of the Holocaust. The book details her pre-war happy childhood in Nice, France, her deportation to the concentration camps, her horrific experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, and the loss of her parents and brother while in captivity. She was able to overcome adversity through her strength and remarkable contributions to French society in helping others, especially French women, whom she assisted to pursue their rights. The girls were inspired by her resilience, perseverance and courage.

We saw an opportunity for cross-departmental collaboration – my students joined with students in the senior history elective titled The Holocaust to broaden their studies. Our French class gave a presentation on Une vie. Students in the history class presented brief historical overviews on antisemitism in France before the Second World War, the German invasion and occupation of France, the roundup and deportation of Jews to Auschwitz and the French resistance.

I genuinely thank my colleague, Fred Kountz, for his collaboration in this cross-departmental effort. Without his contributions and knowledge, this project would have not been possible.

While exploring Paris I was also able to connect with the Pasteur Institute to plan a visit to the Pasteur Museum for our students who are participating in the French Exchange Program this spring. As they love science, it is another wonderful way to inspire collaboration across disciplines.