The women of the Paris Pantheon
By Jerry Marterer
Josephine Baker in uniform. Photo by Baker Studio Harcourt, Paris, in the public domain.
The Pantheon in Paris owes its name and architecture to the original one in Rome that was completed around 120 A.D. by the Emperor Hadrian. The name means “all the gods” and is derived from the Greek. The façade is a combination of a Roman portico and Greek Corinthian columns at the entrance to a circular temple. In 609 A.D. it became a Catholic church, which stands today.
The Roman and Greek façade became popular in French architecture in the 18th-century, and several churches and government buildings adopted it. In 1758 Louis XV commissioned a church to be built on the hill above the Latin Quarter in honor of St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. The place was already known as Mont St-Geneviève. By the time it was to be finished, the French Revolution had begun, and the new government decided to make it a mausoleum for the remains of distinguished French citizens. On the front of the portico is this inscription: “To the Great men, from a Grateful Nation.”
The first few honored were later declared enemies of the revolution and later removed. The ashes of Voltaire were placed in the Pantheon in 1791 and are the longest tenured. Few persons have entered the Pantheon immediately upon their death. Many have been honored years after they have been buried elsewhere. As of today, 72 men have been interred there and only six women. It has always been the head of state who decides who is inducted, be it king, emperor or president.
Technically, the first woman to enter was Sophie Berthelot. Her husband, Marcellin, was the country’s leading chemist and the first to synthesize methane, benzine and acetylene. He and his wife died within hours of each other in 1907, and Marcellin’s last request was that they must be buried together side by side. Sophie has been referred to as the “unknown of the Pantheon.”
Right, Irene and Marie Curie, 1925. Photo author unknown, CC by 4.0.
The first woman to be honored on her own merit was Marie Skłodowska-Curie. She came to Paris from Poland in 1891 and met her future husband, Pierre, in 1894. Their marriage forged a partnership that led to discoveries of global significance: radioactivity and radium, a new element, as well as the forerunner of X-ray technology. In 1903 she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Upon the death of Pierre in 1906, she was appointed to the professorship he vacated and became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. There was a scandal due to her amorous relationship with Paul Langevin, a fellow scientist. During World War I, she introduced X-radiography for medical use. In 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize for chemistry and became the only person to ever win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Upon her death in 1934, she was buried in the Sceaux Cemetery in Paris alongside her husband. Despite these achievements, it took another 61 years for Marie and her husband to be inducted into the Pantheon. In 1995 Marie and Pierre were each honored individually and interred in their own crypts in the Pantheon. Their remains were still so radioactive that their coffins are lined with an inch of lead. Ironically, Marie’s one-time lover, Paul Langevin, had already been inducted into the Pantheon in 47 years earlier, in 1948.
Twenty years later, in 2015, two women were honored who served in the French Resistance networks during World War II. They were both arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps but survived and became activists for many causes.
Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (1920-2002) was the niece of General Charles de Gaulle. She joined the French resistance in 1940. She was arrested by the French Gestapo in 1943 and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944, where she was placed in isolation because Heinrich Himmler thought she could be used as a possible prisoner exchange. She was released in 1945 and in 1946 married Bernard Anthonioz, a fellow resistance member. Later in life she wrote a book about her experiences in the camp. She served as president of an association dedicated to helping former deportees and prisoners of the war and was also an advocate for universal health care and housing.
Germaine Tillion (1907-2008) helped Jewish families escape during the war and organized intelligence for the Allies. She was arrested in 1942, sentenced to death and deported to Ravensbrück in 1943. Her mother, Emile, was also imprisoned in 1943 and died there. Tillion secretly kept records of the identities of the German SS soldiers that could be used to prosecute them at the war’s end. She escaped in April 1945. After the war she became an advocate against torture in Algeria and for the emancipation of women in France’s colonies.
Upon the honoring of the two women, Alissa Rubin of the New York Times wrote of the Pantheon’s motto, “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.”
Simone Viel (1927-2017) was born Simone Jacob in Nice in 1927. She and the rest of her family were arrested in April 1944. She and her mother and sisters were sent to Auschwitz. Her brother and father were sent to the Baltic States and never heard from again. Simone, her mother and her sister Madeleine were then sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where her mother died. The camp was liberated in April 1945, and Simone and Madeleine returned to France. Simone went on to study law and political science. She married Antoine Viel in 1946 and practiced law until passing the national exam to become a magistrate in 1956. Under the Ministry of Justice, she became the director of civil affairs, where she championed the improvement of women’s rights. She held several ministerial posts — health, state and social affairs — as well as being a member of the European Parliament, and was elected to the Académie Française in 2008.
Upon her death on June 30, 2017, French citizens organized petitions demanding her to be honored in the Pantheon. In 2018, she became the fifth woman in the Pantheon and was joined by her husband, Antoine, who had died four years earlier. Several women’s organizations favoring more female representation were formed during this time.
Images provided by the author.
Josephine Baker was born into poverty to a single mother in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her career as a dancer in New York in the 1920s and eventually moved to Paris, where she became a sensation as both a singer and dancer. She said that she never found so much freedom back home. She was a star at Les Folies Bergère and in cabarets across the city. In her famous song, “J’ai Deux Amours,” she projects a sentiment felt by generations of Americans: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.” She was Europe’s highest-paid entertainer.
Josephine became a citizen of France in 1937. In that year, she purchased the Château des Milandes in the south. When war broke out, she served as an ambulance driver and an intelligence agent in the Resistance, where she would attend diplomatic parties in foreign embassies. After Germany took Paris, she moved to her château, where she hid refugees and Resistance members. She returned to Paris after the war, taking part in the victory parade wearing her army uniform. In 1961, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and inducted into the Legion of Honor.
She renovated her château to become her own orphanage, adopting children from around the world. Eventually she ran out of funds, and the Château des Milandes was seized by the bank in 1966 and sold to creditors. Princess Grace of Monaco came to her rescue, providing a home there and founding schools for orphaned children. Baker died in 1975.
In 2021 Josephine Baker was inducted into the Pantheon, the only American and the only woman of color ever honored. President Emmanuel Macron said at the ceremony:
“She enters tonight with all those who chose France as a land where they could live, a place where they could stop dreaming of being somewhere else, a promise of emancipation.”
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.