I love the “City of Stars” music from the recent Oscar-nominated movie, La La Land. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling tenderly whisper their dreams and hopes to the stars, praying for a city of lights filled with love and happiness.
When I hear this song my heart escapes to a magical place where my dreams are admittedly sentimental and gooey. For me, my city of lights shines brightly in Paris.
Every time I’m in Paris I succumb to its winding streets and famous arrondissements. While I have yet to go beyond the city, venturing into Versailles and Fontainebleau, who can blame me? Paris is filled with an endless selection of bottomless bread baskets, silky cheeses and overflowing red wine on almost every Parisian corner. These culinary delights stimulate my blissful escape into the fascinating world of Parisian stories, stretching my imagination across time and well beyond the city’s center at Notre Dame.
Historical French women call out to me like Joan of Arc, from her gable perch on the Sacré Cœur Basilica, and Josephine Bonaparte, as I walk the cobblestone streets in front of Notre Dame. Paris is alive thousands of monuments to women, whose contributions have changed history and opportunities for other women.
In Montmartre, fifteenth century Joan of Arc is one of my favorite musings. She sits to the left of a triumphant King Louis IX. Joan is best remembered for her role in preserving France’s religious faith and national unity. During the Hundred Years War when the English occupied parts of France and threatened its sovereignty, Joan claimed to hear God’s voice telling her to lead the embattled crown prince Charles VII to victory at Orléans.
Joan of Arc’s victorious charge and horrific death as a heretic burned at the stake sealed her fate as one of France’s most cherished saints. But what if Joan had ignored her dreams or had been too afraid to take up the sword, especially since women leading the war front was unheard of at this time?
Joan’s mystic legacy as a great leader and savior of the church is honored in thousands of statues throughout Paris, and to this day she continues to be a subject of great scholarly fascination. More personally, the golden image of Joan riding on a horse into battle inspires me to feel like anything is possible in life, if you stay true to your beliefs and convictions amidst doubt and controversy.
Of all the fascinating French women of Paris, I could not write their stories without including the most famous one living in the Louvre museum.
Before you say the Mona Lisa shouldn’t be included because she isn’t technically French born, and is only an Italian subject of painter Leonardo Da Vinci’s, hear me out.
I include the Mona Lisa among the most inspiring and transformative French women for two reasons: her portrait was commissioned by the King of France in 1530 and, most importantly, she is the most visited, studied, and best known work of art in the world whose place in Paris is solidified. Essentially, there are no plans for the Mona Lisa to emigrate anytime soon.
Her resting place in the Louvre is an interesting one, after her picture first hung in the gallery of King Francois I at Fontainebleau. Napoleon Bonaparte moved her to his bedroom wall in his Tuileries apartment in 1800 before she took official residence in the Louvre four years later. The Mona Lisa has continued to live in Paris well over 200 years now, and my fixation with her place there is shared with the world.
No doubt her mysterious smile or what the Italians call, sfumato (meaning blurry, ambitious and up to the imagination) is a perfect reflection of the mysterious allure that French women exude. It is an allure that can’t be defined, any more than Nat King Cole tried in his hit song about Mona Lisa’s smile or Columbia Pictures’ attempt to classify her in the 2003 movie, Mona Lisa Smile.
The potential for women to reach new heights and to dream beyond traditional roles is enough to hold me captive. Mona Lisa reminds us of the power of the imagination, even for any doubters who know that Da Vinci predicted many future inventions from flying machines to water inventions.
The Mona Lisa is more than a 16th century painting of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Her stature goes far beyond the millions of people who have flocked to see her. She embodies that powerful combination of strength, mystery, creativity and individualism in French women that inspires me to be even more than I already am.
French history is filled with further examples of complex female figures, the last which must be included to understand revolutionary France. During the French Reign of Terror in 1793, Josephine Tascher de La Pagerie was married to a prominent Viscount named Alexandre de Beauharnais. Alexandre was executed by guillotine for being an aristocratic sympathizer but his wife Josephine was saved from the same fate thanks to her quick intellect.
Parisian women still recount Josephine’s ingenious escape. Josephine walked up the steps of the platform to meet her death but fainted in front of a huge crowd gathered at Notre Dame. Claiming she was with child, she knew the Catholic laws protected the execution of an innocent child so her life would be spared. Able to wait out the political unrest in jail, Josephine was released when the final coup d’état ended.
Josephine would reappear on these same steps of Notre Dame to be crowned Empress years later when she married Napoleon Bonaparte. After her prison release she became a popular leader in Paris society and caught the fancy of Napoleon, a young rising officer in the army. She used her position to advance his political fortune, and when they married in a civil ceremony Josephine insisted on a second ceremony at Notre Dame after his coronation as Emperor on December 1, 1804.
During their reign, Josephine fought for social and political reforms and joined a movement of women called the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, whose demands included equal rights for women and economic reforms in Paris. Participating in a march that included over seven thousand armed women, Josephine took to the streets and protested at the Hotel de Ville and later Versailles.
Josephine secured her title as Empress with Napoleon even after he divorced her because she could not produce an heir. Despite her new status, she remained politically astute and helped assuage the marriage of her daughter, Hortense, to Napoleon’s brother Louis, and her son Eugene’s marriage to the daughter of the King of Bavaria.
When you consider Josephine’s historical legacy, her ancestry of five dynasties still reigns in Northern Europe, in the ruling families of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and in Luxembourg. In fact, she is even connected to Princess Diana and her son William, who will become the next King of England. How’s that for a city of lights and an Empress of all Empires?
Parisian women have changed the course of history in France and throughout the world. The new reign of terror attacks are not enough to dampen my appetite for Paris, as I stand in solidarity with them. The French commitment to helping America in its struggle for independence lives on in our Lady Liberty statue, a gift from the French designed by Auguste Bartholdi.
As she clutches the Declaration of Independence and steps out of the British chains that lay at her feet, I know France will always have a special place in my heart. This power is underscored by its women and captured in a diary entry by Napoleon to his future wife, Josephine. In it, he writes to her saying,
“I awake filled with you. Your portrait and yesterday’s intoxicating evening left no repose for my senses. Gentle, incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart!”