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How many of these famous French women have you heard of?

PUBLISHED: 16:19 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:17 06 March 2017

Joan of Arc © Steven Wynn / Thinkstockphotos

Joan of Arc © Steven Wynn / Thinkstockphotos


To celebrate International Women’s Day we’ve chosen 10 famous French women who have left their mark on history. How many have you heard of and who else would you add to the list?

Joan of Arc

National heroine

Nicknamed ‘the Maid of Orléans’, Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in Domrémy, Vosges. The daughter of poor tenant farmers, at the age of 18 she led the French army to victory over the English during the Hundred Years’ War, before being captured a year later and burned at the stake. A national heroine, she was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1920.

Edith Piaf © Eric Koch, Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989Edith Piaf © Eric Koch, Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989

Édith Piaf


Christened Édith Giovanna Gassion, Piaf was born on 19 December 1915 in Belleville, Paris. After a childhood marked by poverty and hardship, ‘the little sparrow’ went on to become one of France’s most famous chanteuses, recording hits such as Je Ne Regrette Rien and La Vie en Rose. Piaf died in Provence in October 1963, aged 47.


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Coco Chanel in 1928 via Wikimedia CommonsCoco Chanel in 1928 via Wikimedia Commons

Coco Chanel

Fashion designer and businesswoman

Founder and namesake of the Chanel brand, Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel was born on 19 August 1883 in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire. She was raised in an orphanage after the death of her mother, and after a brief stint as a singer, performing in clubs as ‘Coco’, she opened her first clothes shop in 1910. Chanel went on to become famous for her trademark suits and little black dresses, and launched the first perfume to feature a designer’s name – Chanel No.5. The revered style icon died on 10 January 1971, aged 87.

Emilie Chatelet portrait by Latour Maurice Quentin de La Tour via Wikimedia CommonsEmilie Chatelet portrait by Latour Maurice Quentin de La Tour via Wikimedia Commons

Émilie du Châtelet

Mathematician and physicist

A philosopher, mathematician and physicist, Émilie du Châtelet’s most lasting contribution to science and her most recognised achievement is her translation of Isaac Newton’s book Principia into French. Containing the basic laws of physics, it is still considered the standard French translation and remains in use to this day. She was born in Paris on 17 December 1706, and died in 1749 at the age of 43 following complications during childbirth.

Brigitte Bardot in 1962 By MGM, via Wikimedia CommonsBrigitte Bardot in 1962 By MGM, via Wikimedia Commons

Brigitte Bardot

Dancer, model and actress

Born on 28 September 1934 in Paris, Bardot studied ballet as a teenager and appeared on the cover of Elle magazine at the age of 15. She became an international star after appearing in the 1956 film And God Created Women, and was one of the best-known sex symbols of the 1950s and 60s. She retired from acting in 1973 and established herself as an animal rights’ activist.


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Tomb of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre © Tibauk commonswikiTomb of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre © Tibauk commonswiki

Simone de Beauvoir

Academic, philosopher, writer, women’s rights activist

Considered to have laid the foundations for the modern feminist movement, Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris on 9 January 1908. She has a long-term relationship with the pioneering existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who she met at the age of 21. Her best-known work The Second Sex was published in 1949 and established her as one of the most important feminist icons of her era. De Beauvoir died on 14 April 1986 in Paris and is buried with Sartre at the Montparnasse cemetery.

Sarah Bernhardt Nadar in 1864 via Wikimedia CommonsSarah Bernhardt Nadar in 1864 via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Bernhardt


Born Henriette-Rosine Bernard on 22 October 1844 in Paris, Sarah Bernhard attended the Paris Conservatoire as a teenager and was later accepted by France’s national theatre company, going on to appear on stage and in some of the earliest films ever produced, including Hamlet and La Tosca. She continued to tour after her right leg was amputated following an accident, playing roles she could take on while seated or wearing a prosthetic limb. She died in Paris on 26 March 1923, aged 78.


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Charlotte Gainsbourg © Olivier PacteauCharlotte Gainsbourg © Olivier Pacteau

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Actress and singer

Anglo-French singer and actress Charlotte is the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. Born in London on 21 July 19721 at the height of her parents’ fame, she was raised in Paris and has received both a César Award and the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for her film roles.

Marion Cotillard in 2009 © nicogeninMarion Cotillard in 2009 © nicogenin

Marion Cotillard

Actress, musician, environmentalist

With an Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and two César Awards to her name for roles in films including A Very Long Engagement and La Vie en Rose, actress Marion Cotillard also holds France’s highest honour, the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur. Born on 30 September 1975 in Paris, the actress is married to actor and director Guillaume Canet and has been a spokesperson for Greenpeace since 2001.

Isabelle Huppert at Festival de Venise (Mostra) © Nicolas GeninIsabelle Huppert at Festival de Venise (Mostra) © Nicolas Genin

Isabelle Huppert


Born in the 16th arrondissement of Paris on 16 March 1953, actress Isabelle Huppert made her television debut in 1971 with Le Prussien. Her international breakthrough came with the film La Dentelliere in 1977, for which she won a BAFTA, and most recently she won a Golden Globe for her performance in the 2016 film Elle. With 16 nominations, she is the most nominated actress for the César Award.

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