Prostitutes, nuns and anarchists: The untold story of the women who shaped Paris

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Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
Prostitutes, nuns and anarchists: The untold story of the women who shaped Paris
Moulin Rouge dancers perform during the celebration of the 130th anniversary of the French oldest cabaret in 2019. Photo: AFP

One of Paris' most iconic neighbourhoods was heavily influenced by a diverse set of women: prostitutes, nuns, a transvestite artist and feisty revolutionaries. Their role, often neglected in history books, is the centre of a new tour concept that focusses on the French women who shaped the capital.


“It’s the sort of thing that, once you notice them, they’re everywhere,” said Heidi Evans, a 30-year-old tourist guide, as she pointed out a heart hanging high one of the walls in Rue des Abbesses, a bustling street in the picturesque neighbourhood of Montmartre, north in Paris. 

A black "A" cuts through the red of the heart, splitting it into several little pieces.

The symbol, which hangs on several streets in the touristy neighbourhood, was made to honour the anarchist movement led by Louise Michel, a French revolutionary, feminist and icon.

Michel and her followers were crucial in the Paris Commune radical movement, which led an armed struggle against the French government in the early 1870s.

Louise Michel is one of the main characters featuring in Evans's newest tour in the making, in the series Women of Paris Walks.

One of the Amour Anarchie symbols, made by the street art collective A2, hanging in the streets of Montmartre. Photo: The Local.


The tour will take place in the 18th arrondissement in the French capital, a diverse neighbourhood and popular tourist destination, known internationally for being the home of the Sacré Cœur Basilica and the Moulin Rouge.

Evans, who is British, came to Paris looking for adventure and established her tour tour guide company in 2016, after becoming convinced that women were a “grossly neglected topic in Paris tourism".

Watch The Local France on tour with 'Women of Paris' here

Her tours aim to change that, by telling the story of different parts of the city through the women who shaped it.

Typically, Evans explained, tours and historic accounts about Paris were focused on male characters - Napoleon, Louis XIV, Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre - while either ignoring or diminishing the role of iconic women. 

“What’s interesting about Louise Michel is that you actually see her name quite a lot around the city. There’s a Metro station named after her, there are schools named after her,” Evans said, adding: “And yet I bet that if you were to ask the average Parisian about who she was, they would not be able to tell you."

Louise Michel is in fact the only French woman to have a Metro station named after her (although Polish-born Marie Curie has one jointly named after with her husband Pierre and Simone Veil also gets half a station name).


Overlooking women’s role in history is, of course, not something limited to France or French history. Of all recorded history, researchers have calculated that women make up a slight 0.5 percent.

In Paris, a new generation of activists have begun pushing for a narrative shift, demanding that the “Paris woman cliché” of the slender, flawless, white femme fatale be buried once and for all and that women - all women, not just those who are able-bodied and white - become properly recognised.

READ ALSO: 'Romanticised and commodified’ - why France is rejecting the 'Paris woman' cliché

Louise Michel, Simone de Beauvoir and Colette were among the French women honoured outside Panthéon in 2008. Photo: AFP

A photo taken on April 11, 1982 shows an attitude of American singer and actress Liza Minelli during a one-night show in Paris' Moulin Rouge cabaret

Evans said she considered herself as part of this movement and that this was why her newest tour would spotlight a set of what she called “contrasting” leading ladies: nuns, prostitutes, artists, revolutionaries - and a transvestite dancer who rebelled with a notorious lesbian kiss in the Moulin Rouge showroom.

“If I’m going to create tours about women, I need to create tours that present women of all different types,” Evans said. 

Her newest tour will pass through Pigalle, historically Paris’ big red light district, and Montmartre, by the Sacré Cœur basilica. 

By tracing the steps of the women whose footprint still lingers on the capital today, Evans said she aimed show the contrasts of the neighbourhood, which during the late 19th and early 20th century was home to both a flourishing marked for sex workers and nuns who made wine.

“The idea is to show tourists a different kind of Paris, not just the cliché version,” Evans said.





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Anonymous 2020/10/04 14:33
Did Simone de Beauvoir actually say, "I consider my relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre my greatest accomplishment"?<br /><br />Ouch!

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