Battle of the sexes as French activists feminise European heritage

·6-min read
© HF Ile de France / Gonzalez administration

A French group is unearthing the hidden contributions to cultural heritage made by women at an event that runs alongside the European Heritage Days. Despite some progress, the arts remains one sector where inequality between men and women is rife.

How many people have heard of Louise Farrenc? Chana Orloff? Marceline Desbordes-Valmore? Non? Ah!

These women were composing music, sculpting and writing between the 18th and 20th centuries, contemporaries of Frédéric Chopin, Auguste Rodin, Victor Hugo. But their works, unlike those of their male counterparts, have been forgotten.

Since 2008, the association Mouvement HF has been actively seeking to highlight women throughout history and give them back the honours that have been too long hidden away in dusty archives.

"We are participating in the rehabilitation of the women creators of the past," Marie Guérini, militant feminist and secretary general of the Paris regional HF group told RFI.

"In many cases [these women] were recognised during their lifetime but once they died, they disappeared from view, wiped from a history that was written from a masculine perspective," she says.

She is also the coordinator of "Les Journées du Matrimoine" – Women's Heritage Days from 10-18 September.

Twenty-six free events in Paris and the neighbouring suburbs bring some 50 women creators into the spotlight through poetry readings, theatre, round table discussions, screenings and exhibitions.

The last two days coincide with the annual European Heritage Days, on 17 and 18 September, during which numerous government and private buildings and archives made accessible to the public for one exceptional weekend.

"This rediscovered 'HERitage' bridges the gap between the creators of yesterday and those of today.

"It also allows younger generations to project themselves into careers by having female role models and demonstrates that women artists have always existed," the website says.

Repairing injustice

Rectifying the past is a way of advancing towards the future, and above all, dealing with the present, and repairing a great deal of injustice, Guérini stresses.

Just take a look at the school books, where very few examples of women as models of creativity and invention are cited, she says.

It is "extremely unfair," that the efforts of women throughout history have been consistently erased, under represented, unheralded.

Why is it that around 61 percent of women enrol in the arts in France but only 40 percent end up with jobs in their fields? Why do women make up only 17 percent of composers registered with French copyright body Sacem in 2019?

"There’s a big bug here," Guérini says. "It’s a system that perpetuates itself and discriminates against women despite the fact that women hold more diplomas than men globally and have done for some time."

These questions have haunted the founders of the Mouvement HF association since its creation in 2009. It now has eight branches across France.

In 2006 and 2009, Reine Prat was commissioned by the Culture Ministry to conduct a report on gender equality in France’s culture sector. The figures painted a dark picture of just how under represented women were in this field.

"It caused shockwaves," Marie says. "We thought, as did a lot of other people, that culture was one of the least discriminatory areas but we were wrong.

"We were not in a world of avant-garde thinking or equality between men and women, and so that’s how the association HF-IDF came into being.

"It’s now urgent and necessary to repair this cultural injustice that has been around since Christine de Pizan, in the 14th century, the first author to make a living from her writings (she wrote "Cité des Dames")".

Important symbol

Culturally speaking, in France, actions mean just as much as words, seeing as masculine and feminine definite articles label everything things, forming the very backbone of everyday language, and thinking.

In order to tackle ordinary forms of sexism and discrimination, there is therefore a sense that by using exact words, a societal awareness will come about bringing with it positive, inclusive actions.

France has already begun to move in this direction, by adopting inclusive language, for example, tous.tes (everyone) in public institutions and documents to remove the emphasis on gender so inherent in the French language.

"Vocabulary is a strong symbol," Guérini says. "A language is a living entity, that must evolve to stay alive."

The word "matrimoine", is the feminine equivalent of "patrimoine" in French meaning something inherited from the mother, as opposed to the father.

These two words should be used "side by side to make history all the more inclusive", and put the focus on a shared past she says.

"It’s not a neologism," invented by feminists to rile people up she says, but rather it existed in the Middle Ages and disappeared with the arrival of the French Academy in the 18th century.

Words in the French language such as "autrice" (author) were purposely "eliminated" by the powerful men who chose which words would stay and which words would go.

The first Journées du Matrimoine were created in 2015. They were met with a certain amount of pushback, in the form of "what do those feminists want now?", Guérini explains, but she admits progress is being made, slowly.

For the second year in a row, HF-IDF has a stand at the Hôtel de Ville de Paris – one of the most visited buildings in the capital – this is a real step forward in terms of "official" recognition and visibility.

Domino effect

Each year, the organisation choses one woman as a beacon to build awareness. This year it’s painter Roberta Gonzalez (1909-1976). Born in 1909 in Paris, her work using the female figure, reflects the upheavals of the 20th century.

Music is playing also a lead role in this year's celebrations with presentations of Polish composer Maria Szymanowska and Elsa Barraine.

It happens to be one of the art forms where the most discrimination occurs, both in the past and in today’s world, Guérini points out, adding that the association actively supports women in the contemporary music industry.

The efforts of the association are starting to see a positive domino effect in other francophone countries.

Government representatives in Québec have contacted the HF movement to ask them how to go about setting up their own "Matrimoine" Day. Belgium and Switzerland have also followed suit. In Italy, the city of Florence is holding a 'Matrimoine' day in October.

A Spanish-based initiative called "Women’s Legacy Europe", is already well on the way to becoming a Europe-wide platform for incorporating the gender perspective into interpreting cultural heritage. Watch this space.

"We mustn’t give up," Guérini says, referring to a quote from French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, her role model since her discovering her writing as a young woman.

"The feminist struggle is eternal".