The most important global gathering on gender equality of the past 25 years kicks off today in Paris. 

The Generation Equality Forum, hosted by the governments of France and Mexico, and convened by UN Women, will bring together activists, civil society leaders, world leaders and companies to accelerate progress on women’s rights.

Ahead of this critical event, we’ve put together an list of  four inspirational French figures who fought for the rights we enjoy as women today

1. Simone de Beauvoir

French feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was a pioneer of women's liberation. Both her personal and professional life are a testimony to how women can lead a free life.

"I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, I didn't want to lead an 'inner life,' which is the most crushing thing about the female condition. I had escaped the bondage of womanhood," she said in a TV interview, three years before dying.

Beauvoir argued that the relationship between men and women is socially constructed. 

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," she wrote in her manifesto entitled The Second Sex in 1949. "No biological, psychological, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female acquires in society.”

In her 1071-page critique of patriarchy, Beauvoir challenges the social, political and religious arguments used to justify women’s second-class status of the time.

While critics lambasted the “feminist Bible” in France, it became highly popular in the United States.

She met iconic existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in her twenties. It was the start of a lifelong collaboration and legendary life together until Sartre's death in 1980.

Emblematic of the way she thought women should live independently, they had an unconventional relationship and Beauvoir had lesbian relationships with student lovers, according to her letters to Sartre.

2. Olympe de Gouges 

At a time when women had no political rights, Olympe de Gouges was a 18th-century French revolutionary who urged women to get politically engaged.

She was deemed one of the world's first feminist activists.

Although she didn't go to school, Gouges was eloquent and had her own theatre company to voice her radical ideas. Back then, a female writer was considered offensive to society and morals.

Gouges campaigned, for instance, for women's right to get a divorce and achieved it in 1792 – compared with 1937 in the United States.

This pioneer feminist is best known for her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, published in 1791, in which she advocated that men's basic rights should be extended to women.

The playwright entered France's Panthéon in 2018 –  a great honor bestowed on national heroes who contributed to the country's grandeur. Her statue is the first female historical figure among statues of men.

Although she was opposed to the death penalty, she considered women should have the same right to be guillotined as men – and this is how she died in 1793 for her political engagement.

3. Simone Veil

A Holocaust survivor, Simone Veil is widely respected across France's political spectrum for working tirelessly to advance women’s rights.

She served as France’s Health Minister in the late 1970s and was named again Minister of Social Affairs, Health and Urban development a decade later. In those functions, she got the unanimous adoption of the contraceptive pill at the National Assembly.

She is best known for passing the Veil Law — which legalised women’s right to request an abortion — in 1975, deemed a cornerstone of female emancipation in France.

Veil was in favor of gender quotas in business and politics and published a manifesto urging for greater female representation.

"Women in politics shouldn't be a laughing matter or a joke," she said, as she faced sexist remarks throughout her career.

A staunch European advocate, she became the first female President of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1982, the first woman to hold that office and the first president directly elected.

Veil became the fifth woman to be buried in France's Panthéon, home to national champions the likes of Victor Hugo and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

4. Françoise Giroud

"What a misfortune!," said Françoise Giroud's father when she was born. He wanted a son.

Although she quit high school at 14, this self-made woman had an outstanding social and professional ascension, scarred by personal tragedy – her sister and eldest son died early.

At a time there were very few women in the media in France, Giroud became the managing editor of the magazine Elle, right after WWII. She then co-founded a major French news magazine L'Express in the 1950s, became its editor then its director for 20 years.

She was the first woman in France to lead a newspaper.

Giroud fostered an entire generation of female political journalists.

She moved away from her passion for journalism when she was appointed Secretary of State for Women's Affairs by then president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. She was then named Secretary of State for Culture.

"Women will truly be equal to men the day an incompetent woman will be appointed to an important position," she would say, known for her cynical humor.

She launched her famous One Hundred and One Measures in favor of women, a series of political measures to improve women's status in society and politics.

Key draft laws sought to eradicate gender-based discrimination preventing women from accessing civil service jobs, allow women to get jobs in the public sector after the age limit, and prohibit employers from discriminating against pregnant women.

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

4 Iconic French Activists Who Made a Difference in Women's Rights

By Kamilia Lahrichi