A woman walks down a street with her shadow caught in steam rising from the ground
Women of Paris walking tours are resurfacing the stories of women whose contributions to the city are often overlooked Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty

New walking tours underline the overlooked contributions of female scientists, activists, and writers in the City of Light.

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

When Heidi Evans moved from London to Paris three years ago, she was keen on new adventures and practicing her French. She started working for a large and fairly corporate tour company, showing awestruck tourists around the city’s charming cobblestone streets. But she soon realized that something was off with the historical context she was providing. “The tour was focused on all of these great things that men had done throughout history, with only the occasional wicked woman like Marie Antoinette,” says Evans. “We spent a lot of time talking about men named Louis.”

And so, last August, Evans launched her own tour company to focus on the contributions of women in the City of Light. Women of Paris now offers two tours: The Essential, which explores inspirational female scientists, queens, and activists; and Sugar & Spice, which focuses on the contributions of female writers and bookshop owners. Both tours highlight a cast of both familiar and unfamiliar characters, highlighting their personal narratives more than their recognizable works.

I met Evans on a recent Thursday to take her Sugar & Spice tour. Both tours take place in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, an affluent part of the sixth arrondissement with pristine streets, handsomely preserved Haussmann architecture, and enviable apartments with window boxes that overflow with flowers. Saint-Germain-des-Prés has long had an outsize cultural legacy: the neighborhood is home to the École des Beaux-Arts and countless intellectuals and artists from around the world.

Our first stop on the tour was des femmes, the first female-run publishing house in Europe. It opened depressingly recently, in 1973. The present space encompasses a bookshop, small gallery, and a publishing house down a pretty lane lined with rose bushes.

Des femmes was founded by Antoinette Fouque, a psychoanalyst and leader of the French women’s liberation movement. Evans explained some of Fouque’s core philosophies—including the concept of “womb envy,” a biting response to Freud’s “penis envy”—and her impressions of Fouque’s seminal book, There are Two Sexes: Essays in Feminology. (“It was a bit heavy, to be honest,” Evans said.) Part of Fouque’s motivation, explained Evans, was her illiterate mother, who instilled a drive in Fouque to create both empowering and accessible literature.

Our next stop was the former home of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, typically known simply as Colette, who became one of France’s most acclaimed novelists. Evans started Colette’s sad but triumphant story with her marriage at 18 to a man twice her age; he spotted her literary talent and frequently locked her up in their apartment to write books that he published under his name. When the couple separated in 1906, Colette went on to perform at music halls (a fairly lowly occupation typically associated with prostitution) and then published a series of highly regarded books, including her best-known work, the novella Gigi. In 1948, Colette was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Outside of her former home was a modest plaque noting that she had once lived there. (Most of the sites on the tour were unmarked.)

We then stopped briefly in front of the former home of Georges Sand, who frequently transgressed gender barriers by dressing as a man to enter spaces women typically weren’t welcome in so that she might have something to write about. “She was really just a badass and she thought that marriage was a prison,” Evans said.

The sweet part of the Sugar & Spice tour is the frequent pit stops at the neighborhood’s chocolatiers, patisseries, and confectionaries—including caramels at Henri le Roux, sticky kouignettes at Maison Georges Larnicol, and thin, soft waffles pressed together with a vanilla icing at the very ornate Meert. Evans explained that the sweet stops combine two passions (eating and reading), even if they have no particular connection to the specific mandate of the tour. Still, the food stops didn’t feel especially discordant. Rather, they made the tour feel more personal, as Evans made recommendations and explained how she first came across a particular place. It gave our walk the feeling of being shown around by a good friend—the opposite of those big corporate tours Evans was trying to escape.

We carried on, discussing the French Institute and their pathetic record recognizing the accomplishments of women. We discussed women who hosted intellectual salons and turned their bookshops into libraries to improve access across social classes. Evans told me about women who refused to allow their books to be burned by Nazis and others who were persecuted for loving other women. The tour that Evans has ultimately crafted is by no means comprehensive; it doesn’t move chronologically, the information tends toward snapshots (spanning two centuries) over fulsome biographies, and there aren’t any specific mentions of women of color. But it is a very interesting slice of history focused on just some of the many women who persisted despite being chronically screwed over by society.

“In the twenty-first century, it's often easy to forget how not long ago women were treated as second class citizens,” Evans told me. But I couldn’t help but dwell on the opposite. It was so easy slip into these historical footsteps in part because of Evans’s storytelling abilities, but even more because of the alarming proximity of so many of these stories of female resistance. On the Women of Paris tours, there is no shortage of eerie contemporary echoes.

Our last stop was the famous Les Deux Magots café, a place frequented by Simone de Beauvoir, Janet Flanner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernest Hemingway. Evans told me the story of how de Beauvoir—whose father liked to boast that she “thinks like a man”—put together the “Manifesto of the 343,” an abortion rights document full of declarations from women who claimed they had abortions, despite their illegality in 1971. De Beauvoir asserted that as many as one million French women had abortions every year, often in the dangerous conditions created by forcing a fundamental health service onto the black market. The manifesto is credited as an important part of the political push that made abortion legal and accessible across France in 1974—a struggle for reproductive autonomy that remains familiar to many women around the world.

As the French saying goes, plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose. Or, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  2. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  3. Maps

    The Children’s Book Map That Led Me Out of Depression

    As a child, I loved the fantastical lands from The Phantom Tollbooth. As a troubled college student, I used them as a roadmap to self-acceptance.

  4. Graduates react near the end of commencement exercises at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S.

    Where Do College Grads Live? The Top and Bottom U.S. Cities

    Even though superstar hubs top the list of the most educated cities, other cities are growing their share at a much faster rate.

  5. a photo of a tiny house in Oregon

    How Amazon Could Transform the Tiny House Movement

    Could the e-commerce giant help turn small-home living from a niche fad into a national housing solution?