Discovering Paris, and the Women who Changed its History

With the spotlight permanently shining on larger-than-life figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XIV, it’s easy to forget the role that women played in French history. To learn more about these impressive French femmes, the HEC Paris MBA’s Women in Leadership Club recently organized a guided tour of Paris open to all students. Their goal: uncover the woman-centric side of the city to understand what these women’s stories could teach them about leadership.

Held during two Saturday afternoons in October, more than 20 students took part. One was Linse Kelbe, MBA ’22, a former Goldman Sachs associate who originally came to France for an undergraduate study abroad program. Based in New York immediately before the MBA, she explains that France has always enchanted her.  “Paris is such a beautiful city with so much history contained in such a small area,” she says. “The appreciation of beauty and art can really be felt. Coming from New York where the buildings are modern, it’s an entirely different experience.”

A group of HEC Paris MBA students see the Pantheon during a Paris Tour designed to introduce them to the women who changed French history

The Panthéon’s inscription reads (in French), “To the great men, the thankful nation”

With bachelors’ degrees in both economics and art history, Linse has made it a priority to explore the cultural side of France. Her highlights from the Women in Leadership Club’s Parisian tour:

Q. What’s the most interesting fact you learned?

A. That the French Revolution started with a group of female fishmongers.

The history: The Women’s March on Versailles took place on October 5, 1789, when many of the female fishmongers of Paris began protesting the high cost of bread. Revolutionaries seeking political reforms quickly supported their efforts. The two groups banded together, and thousands soon marched the 12 miles to Versailles to confront the king. The violent mob ended up forcing Louis XVI, his family and the French Assembly to accompany them back to Paris. They effectively changed the political face of France forever.

A group of MBA students discover the female history of Paris

Along the banks of the Seine River

Q. Which place are you most likely to show your family and friends when they visit?

A. The Conciergerie. It’s an imposing building along the banks of the Seine on île de la Cité, which has always been the heart of Paris.

The history: This Gothic palace was built in medieval times under King Philip the Fair. When the French kings abandoned the castle, part of it was converted into a prison. During the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette was held there “in secret,” guarded night and day by two gendarmes.  Known as “Prisoner 280,” the former Queen of France was kept in a cramped and muddy cell for a total of 76 days while she awaited trial for treason.

Group outside of Saint Genieve discovering the history of women in Paris

Outside Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the church where St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, is buried.

Q. If you had the choice, which of the women you learned about would you choose as a mentor?

A. Catherine de Medici. I’m a ballerina – not professionally; I started when I was 19, but I was taking about 10 hours a week of classes when I was in New York – and she’s the person who first introduced ballet to France.

The history: Married at the age of 14 to King Henry II of France, the Italian noblewoman would eventually become one of the most powerful women in 16th century Europe. Regent and mother of three kings of France, Catherine de Medici made the arts a central part of court life.  She created an artistic patronage program that lasted three decades, financed numerous architectural projects, and was one of the Renaissance’s greatest art collectors.