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3 inspiring french women

March 8, 2011

On this International Women’s Day discover more about three French women who helped to shape the world we live in; three women who impacted the 20th century at a time when women were only just emerging from behind the kitchen sink; three women who were not from advantaged backgrounds, but nevertheless forged ahead, determined to make their mark.

Learn just why they are famous and where you can pay homage to them on your next trip to France….

It is also Paris fashion week this week, so let’s start with Coco Chanel

Maybe you saw the film of her life recently, Coco before Chanel with Audrey Tautou so you’ll know all this, but hers is certainly an inspiring success story. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel grew up in difficult circumstances, lost both her parents at an early age and was taught to sew by the nuns in an orphanage.

She started out independent life as a dancer where she got her nickname Coco, but the sewing took over and with her free spirit and innovative style plus lots of hard work she became a fashion icon. Credited with the invention of “the little black dress” and the sailor outfit, she was part of the women’s emancipation movement from a fashion perspective. She opened shops in Paris, then in Deauville, a chic town on the Normandy coast where she also started the trend for getting a summer suntan, and finally in Biarritz on the Atlantic coast near the border with Spain.

Coco was an independent woman with a mind of her own and an undeniable self-belief: “I don’t create fashion, I am fashion!”

Addresses to check out in Paris:

The Chanel Couture House at 21, Rue Cambon & the present day Chanel store nearby in Place Vendome.

The Ritz Hotel where she lived for many years, being both practical for her shop but also as it suited her luxury lifestyle. The suite is still named after her and can be reserved for a cool 9000 Euros a night!


We now come to a lady that was affectionately known as the Little Sparrow as her voice was beautiful and she was tiny: Edith PIAF.

Another one with a tough start in life: Born in the East of Paris in Belleville and brought up partly by her drunk grandmother, she then travelled around with her circus performer father until she found a mentor and started to write her own songs.

When I was young I remember listening to my dad rave about some of these, such as “Non, je ne regrette rien” or “La vie en rose”. Anyway my dad seemingly wasn’t the only one who liked her songs and she really made a name for herself. She was also voraciously part of the resistance movement during WW2 using her singing to get her message across. Tragically her first love was killed in a plane accident shortly after the war, and she consequently became addicted to morphine. Continued abuse dragged her down and eventually killed her several years later.

Addresses to check out in Paris:

Musée Edith Piaf at 5, rue Crespin du Gast, 75011 Paris

Reservations necessary in advance Tel +33(0)1 43 55 52 72

One of many famous people buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery you can also go see her grave if that’s your thing.

Also a film was recently made of her life which won Marion Cotillard an Oscar. The best thing though is just to listen to that amazing voice so click on the song links above to enjoy!



Finally there is Marie Curie, an amazingly influential scientist, born in Poland but naturalised French. Yet another woman who endured many tough times, she lost both her mother and her sister to tuberculosis, but moved to France to study, met then married Pierre Curie with whom she would win the Nobel Physics Prize in 1903. Tragically he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage in 1906 and so she went on to become the first female professor at the Sorbonne taking the chair he vacated.

Bittersweet or what?!

Marie continued her work and won a second Nobel prize in 1911, this time for Chemistry. She put her newfound discoveries to almost immediate good use in WW1 by organising a fleet of mobile radiography units for treating wounded soldiers.

Her work was truly groundbreaking and has enabled further understanding and advancement in the fight against cancer. She herself succumbed to over exposure to the radiation she was working with, getting sicker and sicker, finally dying of Leukemia in 1934. By the way her daughter followed in her footsteps and was awarded her own Nobel Prize a year later. All the amazing good work now lives on and continues with the Curie Institute in Paris.

Although originally buried in the south of Paris with her husband, in 1995 they were both moved and re-interred in the Pantheon. Marie became the first – and so far the only – woman to be honoured there on her own merits. This burial place is not for just anyone, but rather reserved for “National Heroes”.

2011 marks the centenary of her Nobel Prize for Chemistry and as such will be commemorated by France and Poland jointly as part of UNESCO’s International year of chemistry.

There is a museum with all her work preserved in the Curie Institute, but it is closed for renovation in the first half of 2011. Many of her papers have had to be protected since they are still radioactive!

However try this walking tour in English compiled in order to give a real flavour of the places she lived and worked in Paris.

France would just not not be France without these women. So let’s reflect on the sustainable impact they each had on society and celebrate the richness of life today thanks to their valuable and remarkable contributions. Bravo ladies!!


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