France Honors Women … Finally

The Pantheon is getting two more women to add to its ranks of national greats—bringing the tally to a grand total of four heroines in the entire mausoleum.

London has its Westminster Abbey—final resting place of Britain’s greats, from Dickens to Darwin—and Florence has the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the bones of Michelangelo and Machiavelli will mingle til the end of days. France’s national heroes are more spread out—Abelard and Apollinaire are up at Père Lachaise along with Proust, Balzac and Marcel Marceau, while the Bonapartes and assorted military elite lie entombed under Les Invalides’ imposing dome. And over in Paris’s otherwise scruffy Latin Quarter, the neoclassically ornate Panthéon trumpets its dedication to the grands hommes of the grateful patrie, among them Alexandre Dumas père and the satirist Voltaire.

To wit: “aux grands hommes.” There are only two women interred at the Panthéon, and only one who got there on her own merits. That would be Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, the gal who discovered radioactive polonium. The other, Sophie Berthelot, was allowed in so she could repose in aeternum next to her spouse, the chemist Marcellin. This, from the country that birthed Joan of Arc (whose reliquary ashes, granted, might actually be from an Egyptian mummy), Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Marguerite Duras, Coco Chanel, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, and Marat’s bathtub assassin Charlotte Corday.

Enter that great lover of women, François Hollande. One of the perks of his presidency is the right to nominate new members for the mausoleum, and this week he put forth two men and two women for the honor. French feminists rejoiced, as they should; they’re staring down the barrel of four more years of Sarkozy, whose primary Panthéon nomination (Albert Camus) caused a national scandal, with the political left slamming it as an anti-intellectual rightwing cooption of a beloved non-conformist. The writer’s family ended up refusing the reburial offer and Sarko had to settle for dedicating a plaque to Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, whose body remains in his native Martinique.

Hollande’s nominees were also non-conformists, four figures of the French Résistance who defied the Vichy government and the Nazis: Pierre Brossolette, whose Russian-literature bookstore in Paris became a hotbed of underground activity; the assassinated politician Jean Zay; Germaine Tillion, an ethnologist who died in 2008 at the age of 100 and who helped found a famed Résistance cell, which won her a ticket to the all-women’s concentration camp Ravensbruck; and another Ravensbruck survivor, Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, whose uncle was none other than the man who helped lead the Free French Forces and the future president of the saved republic.

In 1964, Charles de Gaulle nominated his own Résistance hero to the Panthéon—Jean Moulin, who had smuggled himself out of the country to meet with de Gaulle in London in 1941 and rally la France libre. He parachuted back onto the continent five months later to continue fighting the good fight and was eventually betrayed and captured by the Gestapo in 1943. They tortured him to death. A year later, the French capital was recaptured by Allied Forces, including de Gaulle, who proclaimed the triumph of “martyred Paris, liberated Paris.” Two decades on, in a ceremony for the ages, de Gaulle and the poet André Malraux honored Moulin (“Entre ici, Jean Moulin, avec ton terrible cortège”) and the other fighters who gave their lives to protect their city and their country from the specter of fascism. "Our brothers in the Order of the Night," Malraux called them—born into a tumultuous century and then destroyed by it. Now, four more heroes—and heroines—will get to take their rightful place at Moulin’s side.