/ / 17 Most Famous French Women Who Have Left A Mark On French History

17 Most Famous French Women Who Have Left A Mark On French History

Want to learn more about French women who shaped the history of France? This post will show you the most influential and famous French women of all time!

French history is rich with the stories of women who have left an indelible mark on their country and the world and it’s safe to say that they embody the values and spirit of France.

The passion, resilience, determination, and courage of these French women and countless others have inspired people worldwide, in addition to their French sistren.

Photo of Marie Curie

Marie Curie[1], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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They serve as a reminder of the crucial role women have played and continue to play in shaping the future.

In this article, I will show you the 17 most famous French women who have left a mark on French history and influenced future generations.

You will read stories on a patron saint, the last Queen, history makers, and the most recent achievers.

17 Most Famous French Women of All Time

From Catherine de Medici, a powerful queen who shaped the destiny of France, to Coco Chanel, an iconic couturier who influenced modern women’s fashion, these 17 most famous French women have made significant contributions to their respective fields — be it politics, arts, culture, or social activism.

Their legacy motivates future generations of women to pursue their passions and make a difference in the world too.

1. Saint Genevieve (419 AD – 502/512 AD)

Saint Genevieve is one of the famous French women in history

Unidentified painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Saint Geneviève is venerated as a patron saint of Paris and considered one of the most important French women.

Born in Nanterre, Geneviève was known for her piety and devotion to God from an early age.

When the city of Paris was threatened by the invading Huns in the 5th century, Geneviève encouraged the citizens not to abandon it but to rather pray and trust in God.

Her prayers were answered and the city was saved and she was revered as a miracle worker.

And when the Germanic king Childeric I conquered Paris which was known as Lutetia at the time, Genevieve acted as an intermediary between the city and its captures to help get food and advocate for prisoners.

She was also a nun who devoted herself to helping the poor and sick, establishing a hospice in Paris.

Due to her impact on the city, she was made a patron saint with Saint Geneviève’s feast celebrated every January 3rd.

You can visit her shrine in Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church in the Latin Quarter which is one of the famous churches in Paris.

2. Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431)

Joan of Arc is one of the most historical French women.

Chabe01, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Widely regarded as one of the greatest French women in history, Jeanne d’Arc or Joan of Arc as she’s popularly known, was and is still considered a symbol of French patriotism and courage.

Joan grew up during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and claimed to have received divine visions from archangel Michael and Saint Margaret that urged her to lead the French army to victory against the English even as a young girl.

She was sent by Charles who later became the King of France thanks to Joan’s triumphs in driving away the English.

But Joan did not just stop at that, even after Charles’ coronation (where she was right beside him), she continued to fight to help get back Paris in 1429, but unfortunately, this time she did not succeed!

She was eventually captured by the Burgundian troops who gave her away to the English and was put on trial for heresy leading to her execution. She was burned at the stake when she was just 19.

25 years later, after careful investigation, this ruling was overturned and her execution was declared a church martyr.

However, her legacy lived on, and she was canonized as a patron saint of France by the Catholic Church in 1920.

3. Catherine de’ Medici (1519 – 1589)

Catherine de' Medici is one of the most iconic French women.

Workshop of François Clouet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine de Medici was one of the most influential French women in politics and culture during the French Renaissance period.

She became queen consort when she married King Henry II of France, later becoming queen regent for her son King Charles IX.

Throughout her reign, Catherine was a clever politician who used her power to maintain the stability of the French monarchy and protect the interests of her family.

She was interested in the arts and is credited with introducing the Italian Renaissance style to France.

Catherine was however a controversial figure known for her political maneuvering and role in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Despite this, she remains an important figure in French history.

4. Olympe de Gouges (1748 – 1793)

Olympe de Gouges is one of the most important French women.

Alexander Kucharsky, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Next on this list of famous historical French women is Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright, political activist, and passionate advocate for women’s rights.

She wrote plays that tackled social and political issues like abolitionism and women’s rights.

Her most known work, “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” was published in 1791 and called for equal rights and opportunities for women.

Olympe was a vocal critic of the French Revolution and the failure of the ruling regime to address women’s rights, which resulted in her arrest and execution by guillotine during the Reign of Terror, making her a martyr for the cause.

5. Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793)

Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. On marrying King Louis XVI, she assumed the title of Queen and became a central figure in the French court.

Known for her love of luxury and extravagance, Marie Antoinette became a symbol of excess and corruption of the French monarchy while disregarding the plight of the French people who were suffering from poverty and hunger.

She also became despised on account of rumors that she had given birth to illegitimate children on top of siding with French enemies, especially with her native home of Austria.

Despite her efforts to improve her image and support charitable causes, Marie Antoinette was arrested during the French Revolution after the monarchy was abolished.

She stood trial, was convicted of treason, and was later executed by guillotine, in 1793 in the current day Place de la Concorde.

She was a controversial yet important figure among French women in history.

6. George Sand (1804 – 1876)

George Sand is one of the most influential French women.

Auguste Charpentier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

George Sand was a French novelist, memoirist, and playwright and, like Olympe de Gouges, was an advocate for women’s rights.

Her original name was Amantine Aurore Dupin, but she chose the pen name “George Sand” to conceal her gender and increase her chances of being published in a writing field that was dominated by men.

George’s literary works, like “Indiana” and “The Devil’s Pool,” dealt with love, passion, and social justice.

She was a prominent figure in the Romanticism movement, and her works are considered some of the greatest of the 19th century.

In addition to her writing, Sand was also known for her political activism advocating for women’s rights and participating in the 1848 revolution in France.

Today, the Musée de la Vie Romantique (Museum of Romantic Life) in Montmartre, Paris pays homage to her work and journey as a romanticist writer.

7. Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923)

Sarah Bernhardt is one of the famous French women in history

Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt, or “The Divine Sarah” as she was referred to was one of the most famous stage performers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

She began her career as a member of the Comédie-Française quickly rising to prominence and becoming one of the most sought-after actresses of her time.

Sarah was known for her dramatic talent and her ability to captivate audiences. She performed in a variety of plays from classical to contemporary dramas.

She was also an early advocate of women’s rights and used her platform to speak on social and political issues.

She continued to act well into her seventies and remains a legendary figure in the history of French theater making her one of the most famous French actresses of all time.

8. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)

Marie Curie is a famous personality of France.

Henrie Manuel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important French women in history is the physicist and chemist Marie Curie who made pioneering contributions to the fields of radioactivity and atomic physics.

Along with her husband, Pierre Curie, she discovered the elements polonium ( an element she named after Poland her country of birth ) and radium and studied their properties.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (twice) and the first person to win both Nobel Prizes in two different fields — Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.

Besides being the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris (Sorbonne university), she was also the first woman to be buried in the Pantheon thanks to her great contributions.

Marie was a trailblazer for women in science and her work paved the way for future generations of female scientists making her a worldwide inspiration and one of the most famous French people of all time.

9. Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Coco Chanel is one of the most famous French people.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, or Mademoiselle Coco Chanel as she is popularly known, is one of the most iconic French women couturiers who revolutionized women’s fashion in the 20th century.

Founder of the eponymous brand Chanel, she is the only designer on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Coco began her career as a milliner and eventually opened her first fashion boutique in 1913.

She is best known for her comfortable yet sophisticated designs that challenged traditional women’s fashion of the time.

Her iconic little black dress, tweed jackets, and costume jewelry are still popular today and have become timeless classics.

Coco also introduced new concepts to women’s fashion like using jersey fabric. She is not only considered one of the greatest French fashion designers but also one of the best worldwide fashion designers of the 20th century and a testament to the impact that one woman can have on the fashion industry.

Today, the brand she started produces one of the best French perfumes, the best French handbags, French makeup, and much more.

10. Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975)

Josephine Baker is one of the famous singers in France.

Paul Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Josephine Baker was a famous French singer, dancer, and actress. She rose to fame in Paris in the 1920s, becoming one of the most famous French women of her time.

Josephine was known for her energetic and daring performances with elements of jazz, vaudeville, and burlesque.

In 1927, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, a silent film called Siren of the Tropics. After this, she became an international sensation and an inspiration to many.

Josephine was also a civil rights activist and worked to end segregation and discrimination. Her commitment to equality and her legendary performances made her a cultural icon.

Besides being a great singer and activist, Baker also was part of the French resistance during WWII which won her many accolades after the war from the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

To honor her impact on France, in 2021, she was interred in the Paris Pantheon becoming the first black woman to receive such an honor.

11. Germaine Tillion (1907 – 2008)

Germaine Tillion is one of the most historical French women.

Donald I. Grant, Department of National Defence, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

French anthropologist, resistance fighter, and human rights advocate Germaine Tillion was born in Marseille, France.

She was known for her work in anthropology and ethnology, particularly her studies of the Berber and Chaoui people of North Africa.

Germaine joined the French Resistance during World War II and was eventually imprisoned by the Gestapo in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

After escaping, she wrote about her time there, becoming a strong voice for human rights and advocating for the rights of women, prisoners, and refugees.

Germaine was also a co-founder of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.

Her tireless and passionate work earned her the Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur, making her one of only 5 women to receive it.

She was interred at the Pantheon along with Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz in 2015.

12. Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)

Simone de Beauvoir is one of the famous writers in France.

Portrait of Simone de Beauvoir Via Wiki commons

Next, we have French writer, feminist, and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, best known for her ground-breaking book “The Second Sex,” which challenged rooted views of gender roles and paved the way for second-wave feminism.

In her writing, Simone challenged conventional wisdom and argued that women were not inherently inferior to men but were made to think so by society.

She also explored themes of existentialism and personal freedom in her work.

Simone’s ideas continue to shape discussions about gender, equality, and freedom, while she remains an influential figure in feminist theory and one of the most famous French women to have walked on the face of the earth.

13. Édith Piaf (1915 – 1963)

Édith Piaf is one of the famous French singers.

Eric Koch / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous French women from the 1930s-40s is France’s national chanteuse and noted singer-songwriter, Édith Piaf.

Born Édith Gassion, she gained the nickname Piaf (meaning sparrow) due to her diminutive stature.

Édith was known for her powerful and soulful voice. Her emotional performances captivated audiences across France and the world.

She sang ballads, chansons, and French songs of love and loss, many of which became timeless classics, such as La Vie en rose, Non, je ne regrette rien, and Hymne à l’amour.

Édith’s personal life was not all sunshine and roses, but her music remained a source of comfort and inspiration to millions of people, and to date, she is still regarded as one of the most famous French singers and her songs are some of the most famous French songs of all time.

14. Jacqueline Auriol (1917 – 2000)

Jacqueline Auriol is one of the most historical French women.

André Cros, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paris-born French aviator Jacqueline Auriol was one of the first female test pilots and among the first women to break the sound barrier.

Jacqueline began her flying career in the 1930s, and between the 1950s-60s, she set five world speed records.

In 1964, Jacqueline became the first woman to fly a supersonic aircraft and reached speeds of over 1,000 miles per hour.

She was also a trailblazer in aerospace engineering, and her pioneering work paved the way for future generations of female pilots and engineers.

Lifelong, Jacqueline remained an advocate for women to pursue careers in aviation.

15. Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (1920 – 2002)

Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz is one of the most iconic French women.

Nelson Minar, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Parisian Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, a French resistance fighter during World War II and a humanitarian was arrested by the Nazis aged 22.

She spent several months in detention before being deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp like Germaine Tillion.

After the war, Geneviève became a leading voice in human rights activism and was a founding member of the National Council of the Resistance, a group dedicated to promoting democracy and justice in France.

She later worked tirelessly for children in war-torn countries, making her an inspiring figure in French history.

Another commonality between Geneviève and Germaine is they are part of a handful of women interred in the Pantheon.

16. Simone Veil (1927 – 2017)

Simone Veil is one of the most famous French women in history.
Simone Veil is one of the most famous French women in history.

French magistrate and politician Simone Veil is one of the most influential French women of recent times.

Post surviving the Holocaust, she became a passionate advocate for human rights, more so women’s rights and the promotion of peace and cooperation in Europe.

Throughout her political career, and primarily while serving as Health Minister, Simone worked to promote gender equality and improve access to healthcare.

She was the first female President of the European Parliament and a former member of the European Commission.

She is also the most recent and the last of 5 women to be buried in the Pantheon.

17. Catherine Deneuve (1943 – present)

Catherine Deneuve is one of the most beautiful French actresses.

Martin Kraft, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We end this list with one of the most famous French women in cinema, an iconic actress Catherine Deneuve.

Paris-born Catherine made her screen debut in Les Collégiennes (1957) aged 13 and starred in a slew of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films.

She has acted in Belle de Jour (1967) which got her a BAFTA nomination, Le Dernier métro (1980) and became a César Award winner, and Indochine (1992) which made her an Academy Award nomination and 2nd-time César Award winner.

During her five-decade career, Catherine has established herself as one of the most versatile and talented French actresses, winning numerous awards and accolades during her journey.

She is a whopping 14-time César Award nominee who continues to captivate audiences with her performances.

Final Thoughts on the Most Influential French Women

How did you like the throwback to history lessons from school? Did you enjoy reading about the most famous French women in history?

I hope all of you women reading this draw inspiration from them and follow your passion.

Of course, the history of France does not start and end with just these 17 women! There are numerous others whose efforts played a part in making the country what it is today.

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