France has a special place for burying its favorite men—the Pantheon, a giant marble structure first built in 1790, originally as a church. In 1791, the National Constituent Assembly ordered the structure to be changed into a mausoleum to honor the greatest Frenchmen. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, a scholar and early leader of the French revolution, was the first man to be buried there. Since then, the mausoleum has been filled with 73 bodies. Only one of honored dead is a woman: Marie Curie. But now, France has announced it will add two more women to the Pantheon.
The selection unveiled at a ceremony honoring those who battled the Nazis and France's collaborationist Vichy regime makes good on the unpopular president's hopes to achieve more gender equality in the country of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.
That motto still doesn't ring true for many French women.
The induction in May 2015 of Resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, a niece of former President Gen. Charles de Gaulle, will bring those honored in the Pantheon to three women and 72 men. Also slated for induction are two men, Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay.
Three out of 75 isn’t a great balance. But it is consistent with other gender inequalities in the country. Women in France make 25 percent less than men do. Only a single woman ever has led one of the top 40 companies in the country.
The Pantheon was lady-less for 110 years before Marie Curie was added. The motto that stretches across the door to the Pantheon reads “To great men, a grateful country.” As Alissa J. Rubin at the New York Times points out:
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.
The two women that President François Hollande will add to the Pantheon were both Nazi resistors. Tillion helped organize prison escapes, and both women were captured by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp in Ravensbrueck. They both survived and returned to France to work against poverty at home and abroad. In his nomination of these two women, Hollande explained that they evoked the spirit of the Resistance. His selection, he said, was meant to "remember the contribution of all those women, most often anonymous, who were part of those years in the shadows."
Feminist groups in France had hoped that the two women would be honored alone this time, rather than alongside men. And in a poll run by the Center for National Monuments asking who should be the next to join the great in the Pantheon, nearly 30,000 votes were counted and the most popular nominees were largely women. When Tillion and de Gaulle-Anthonioz are added, they will tip the scales a tiny bit towards equality in the Pantheon, but assuming each year sees one addition, France would have to add only women to the mausoleum for over seventy years to reach gender parity.