As the builders were putting the final stones in place on the Panthéon, France’s monument to some of its most important figures, a young Napoleon wrote, “Men of genius are meteors destined to burn to light their century.”
The motto above the monument’s door bears much the same sentiment: “To great men, a grateful country.”
Which raises a question: What about the “great women”?
Although times have changed since the building was completed in 1790, neither the motto nor, more important, the choice of who should be buried there has caught up.
By tradition, every French President is accorded the honour of moving a deceased worthy into the structure alongside such figures as Voltaire and Rousseau (who hated each other), Victor Hugo and Marie Curie, the lone woman among 73 people entombed there to make it on her own merits (one other was included at her husband’s insistence). So when President François Hollande publicly sought suggestions about whom to add to the roster, it was not surprising that the debate quickly turned to redressing the gender imbalance.
The President’s staff and Philippe Bélaval, the head of the Center for National Monuments, have been barraged with names of important women recommended for a Panthéon burial. At a time when France is deep into one of its periodic debates about its national identity, the types of women most often nominated for the honour are a reflection of sorts of the national psyche.
At the top of the list are rebels and crusaders, women who dared to live different lives, which sometimes meant unconventional sexual liaisons, multiple lovers and bisexual relationships, as well as exceptional intellectual and social accomplishments. Above all, the women who are being promoted were individualists and independents in a society that at its core is deeply conformist.
That these women managed to flourish while going against the grain adds to their lustre, said Clémence Helfter, of Osez le Féminisme, one of the feminist organisations that have pushed to have a woman named to the Panthéon.
They were unconventional because “despite their condition as women in a patriarchal society, they managed to have exceptional destinies,” she said.
In the 20 days that the Center for National Monuments had a poll online asking for suggestions, more than 30,000 responses were received, and most of the top nominees were women. A notable exception was Charles de Gaulle, who made it clear before his death that he wanted to remain in his small village grave next to his daughter.
Facebook groups formed by feminist organisations drew thousands of votes for women, and when the magazine Le Point polled 5,000 people, the strongest support went to two women: Louise Michel, a 19th-century anarchist and teacher who never married, and Sister Emanuelle, a nun who lived for most of her life in Turkey and Egypt among the poor and espoused liberal views on contraception.
The decision, originally scheduled for late 2013, was put off, and it is now expected this month or next.
In addition to Michel and Sister Emmanuel, women demonstrating in front of the Panthéon last year hoisted portraits of Olympe de Gouges, an early crusader for women’s rights and an opponent of slavery, which was legal in the French colonies during her lifetime. Active from the late 1760s until her death in 1793 at the hands of fellow revolutionaries who guillotined her for having views that were insufficiently anti-monarchist, she repeatedly challenged society’s perception of a woman’s place.
Another potential entrant is Simone de Beauvoir, an intellectual and political theorist and a periodic supporter of hard-line Communist leaders like Stalin and Mao, although such allegiances do not much bother the French. Feminists here view her as every bit as important as her friend and sometime companion Jean-Paul Sartre, said Gladys Bernard of La Barbe, a feminist organisation that held a demonstration in front of the Panthéon last year.
Women active in the French resistance to the Nazis are frequently mentioned. They include Germaine Tillion, an intellectual and ethnographer who was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Lucie Aubrac, whose daring ruse to save her Jewish husband and others makes for breathtaking reading.
Other nominees include dancer and jazz singer Josephine Baker, who was born in the United States but took French citizenship, and a half-dozen others.
The standards for inclusion in the Panthéon have long been idiosyncratic, with more than half of the people buried there named by a single French leader, Napoleon. Most of his honorees are unknown to today’s public, Panthéon scholars said. One of the best-known figures connected to the Panthéon is not buried there: physicist Léon Foucault, who used a brass ball suspended from the lofty ceiling of the building to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation.
Among those honored in the Panthéon in the past 20 years are Louis Delgrès, a mulatto leader of the resistance movement in Guadeloupe, a former French colony, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution. President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to add Albert Camus, the Algerian-born writer, philosopher and onetime member of the French resistance, but members of his family refused.
The scarcity of women in the Panthéon can be explained in part by the relatively small number of French women who have achieved powerful public positions. Women won the right to vote in France only in 1944, nearly 40 years later than in Finland and about 25 years later than in Germany and Britain. And, unlike Britain, Germany and Sweden, the country has yet to elect a female leader.
Certainly, many important men have not made the cut for a Panthéon burial either. Missing are Denis Diderot, the editor of the first encyclopedia and a leader of the Enlightenment, as well as Montesquieu, the French political philosopher who was the first to describe the doctrine of separation of powers.
Panthéon curator Pascal Monnet, who supports the inclusion of more women, is all too aware of the great people who are missing. He said wistfully as he walked through its marble halls that he was sad that one of his favourite French figures, biologist Louis Pasteur, had never found broad public support despite his invention of pasteurisation and the lifesaving rabies vaccine.
The Panthéon is one of several monuments to important French figures: The kings are buried at the Basilica of St.-Denis, just outside Paris, and most military leaders are interred at Les Invalides.
Completed at the dawn of the French Revolution, the Panthéon has often been seen as a divisive structure, with many who supported the old regime or aspects of it feeling that the monument was dedicated to the political Left.
Mona Ozouf, a historian who studies the French Revolution, said she believed that including women could help solidify the building’s status as a national monument, rather than a political one. Her choice would be three figures from the French Resistance, a movement that many French strongly admire. They are two women, Tillion and Genèvieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, and a man, Pierre Brossolette.
Ms. Ozouf emphasized that the people buried there were meant to inspire French citizens.
“We’re not putting ourselves in the Panthéon,” she said, “but someone who is larger than us.” — New York Times News Service