In a first for France, the University of Angers has announced plans for a museum of feminist struggles, drawing on its ample archival resources and expertise to give the history of women’s fight for emancipation and equal rights a permanent home.
France is home to several thousand museums, ranging from the world’s most visited – the Louvre in Paris – to more obscure venues dedicated to themes as diverse as absinthe, vampires and cork screws.
Look for a women’s history museum, however, and you will find none.
In its index of museums dedicated to women, an A to Z of more than 150 virtual and physical venues from Albania to Zambia, the International Association of Women’s Museums counts just one French entry: Muséa, an online exhibition platform launched in 2004 by a group of historians at the University of Angers in western France.
Almost two decades later, their dream of a full-scale, physical museum is starting to take shape, soon to be housed in the university’s library and archival centre, which has established itself as a leading French hub for research on feminist movements.
“France had fallen behind other countries in not having a women’s history museum, whereas our history is full of things to talk about!” said Christine Bard, a historian at the University of Angers and one of the project’s key instigators.
Bard recently curated an exhibition at the Carnavalet museum of Paris history chronicling two centuries of women’s battles for emancipation, from their overlooked role in the country’s revolutionary upheavals to the mass mobilisations for the right to vote, divorce or have abortions. She says the exhibition’s runaway success is evidence of growing public interest in the topic.
“We’re carried by a very favourable context, with a new wave of feminism spurred on by the #MeToo movement,” Bard explained. A museum documenting women’s struggles for emancipation will have “a clear social utility”, she added, at a time when feminist conquests are ushering in profound societal changes and still need consolidating.
‘Museum of women’s conquests’
The #MeToo wave has helped “generate huge interest in discovering the women whose ground-breaking contributions to science, politics and the arts have been largely forgotten by history”, said Magalie Lafourcade, a magistrate and human rights expert who has teamed up with Bard and others to work on the future museum.
She highlighted the glaring discrepancy between younger generations’ growing awareness of gender-based inequalities and the lack of attention afforded to such topics both in schools and museums.
In May last year, as feminists around the world reacted in shock at the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down abortion rights, Lafourcade penned an op-ed in French daily Le Monde calling for the establishment of a “museum of women’s conquests”, envisioned both as an educational facility and a sanctuary for women’s rights. Such a place would help “legitimise women’s place in all fields of the arts and knowledge”, she wrote.
Lafourcade’s plea landed at the right time for the University of Angers, which had just secured a €10 million budget to renovate its library. The combination of abundant archival resources and a refurbished venue made it a natural candidate to house the first museum dedicated to the history of women’s emancipation in France.
The contours of the future Musée des féminismes were unveiled at a conference in Angers on Wednesday, March 8, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day. The plan is to get the first exhibitions up and running as early as next year, ahead of a full opening to the public in 2027.
Focus on fine arts
The forthcoming museum has revived a dormant project for Bard, coming two decades after officials in Paris asked her to work on plans for a women’s history museum in the French capital, only to abandon the project altogether.
Historian Nicole Pellegrin, who worked with Bard on the Muséa online platform, points to a mix of cultural and political reasons for the lack of women’s museums in France.
“French museums have long privileged the fine arts, often disconnected from the civilisations that gave birth to them,” she said. “On top of that, you have the anti-feminist tradition of a masculine political establishment that claimed women were sufficiently represented without the need for them to wield any power.”
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Unlike in the United States, where women’s museums are often sponsored by advocacy groups, such private initiatives are unusual in France, said Bard. She noted that elsewhere in the world, “state-backed women’s museums sometimes tend to instrumentalise their struggles to fit a heroic, nation-building narrative”.
Sheltered in an academic environment, the planned Musée des feminismes is opting for a third way, she added, “free from political pressure and firmly anchored in rigorous, scientific research”.
For the university of Angers, the forthcoming museum is not just a welcome spotlight. It is also a chance to fulfil an obligation often neglected by French museums, said Nathalie Clot, who heads the university’s library and archives.
“France’s state universities have three missions: to teach, carry out academic research and foster ‘cultural dissemination’ among the broader public,” she explained. “The latter mission has only recently been rediscovered. Our audience should not only be academia.”
While Clot is accustomed to welcoming researchers in Angers, she is also stunned by the number of demands from members of the public who wish to visit the university’s archives on feminist movements. She pointed to the Glasgow Women’s Library, the UK’s only accredited women’s history museum, as a model to emulate, praising its rich collections and array of public events.
“Here in Angers we are lucky to have a wealth of documentary and archival material, as well as students and expert staff, and a building to house the lot,” Clot added. “Now we need the money to turn it into a museum.”
Spearheading the hunt for sponsors, Lafourcade says she has encountered “enthusiastic responses” at the ministerial and parliamentary levels. She is now waiting for them to translate into concrete funds.
Meanwhile, the museum’s instigators are celebrating the success of their first crowdfunding campaign, which will enable them to purchase a painting by Léon Fauret depicting the French feminist and suffragist Maria Vérone as she campaigns for the “rights of man” to be renamed as “human rights”.
While the Musée des féminismes is hoping to acquire more artworks by and about women over the coming years, its instigators stress it will not be an art institute. They noted recent progress in giving female artists greater visibility in French museums, though adding that a lot more needs to be done.
Far from exonerating other museums from addressing gender-based discriminations, the museum in Angers hopes to complement such efforts, acting as a catalyst and a source of expertise.
“We’re seeing more and more exhibitions focused on women, but what is still lacking is a focus on women’s struggles for rights and exposure,” said Pellegrin. “We need a museum that shows women not just as victims, but as fighters.”
Highlighting the struggles of LGBT groups as well as racial, religious and other minorities will be equally important, said Lafourcade, stressing the need for an interdisciplinary approach to battles for rights and emancipation. She pointed to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, France’s main Holocaust museum, whose broad range of activities and focus on other histories have bolstered its reputation as a hub for research and education.
The desire to be inclusive, and to tread carefully at a time of growing divisions between feminist movements, is reflected in the museum’s use of the plural form féminismes.
“Feminist movements have very different histories, focuses and sensibilities, and some have enjoyed very little exposure,” said Bard. “Our job is to respect, display and contextualise this diversity.”