The best books about women in France

Marcia DeSanctis Author Of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go
By Marcia DeSanctis

Who am I?

I'm a former television news producer who worked for Barbara Walters and Peter Jennings at ABC News, and at Dateline NBC and CBS’s 60 Minutes. I was always a journalist, but mid-career, I switched lanes from TV to writing. Since then, I've contributed essays and stories to many publications, among them Vogue, Travel & Leisure, The New York Times, BBC Travel, and others. I mostly write about travel, but also cover beauty, wellness, international development, and health. I'm the recipient of five Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year. My book of essays, A Hard Place to Leave: Stories From a Restless Life comes out in May 2022.


I wrote...

100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go

By Marcia DeSanctis,

Book cover of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go

What is my book about?

There are many feminine tropes we all admittedly love about France (Champagne! Perfume! Lingerie!) so in this book I tried to forge something fresh by telling the story of a place connected with a great woman, such as the Château de Chenonceau and Catherine de’ Medici, who brought her passion for perfume from Italy to France when she married the future King Henry II.

I hoped to lift up the language a little bit (I kept a running list of words and expressions I wanted to avoid. No to “hidden gem”, “ooh la la!” or even “City of Light”). I really enjoyed this quest: to convey my love for France and even its inescapable clichés and to do so in a respectful and hopefully original way. 

The books I picked & why

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Colette: Earthly Paradise

By Colette,

Book cover of Colette: Earthly Paradise

Why this book?

The first time I went to Paris, I found a copy of this book at a bouquiniste on the Quai de la Tournelle. I can honestly say it has never left my bedside. Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, was a ferocious talent, a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and colossal French cultural figure until her death in 1954. Earthly Paradise is an autobiography in essays, and hers is an extraordinary story. Born in small-town Burgundy, she was a showgirl at the Moulin Rouge, a traveling performer, was married twice, lived as a lesbian for a decade, had a facelift in the 1920s and at the height of her literary fame, opened a beauty salon in Paris. She was to the core a sensualist and though she claimed to dislike feminism, she was a tower of female strength. But the reason this book—just one of her fifty-five—endures is her achingly gorgeous writing.

No one writes about the natural world with such passionate detail, or as keenly about the raw emotion of love, or as passionately about her country. One of the last essays in the book, Paris from my Window, written during the German occupation in 1940-41, is unforgettable, and perhaps the greatest tribute I have ever read to the resilience both of France and its people.  


Map of Another Town

By M.F.K. Fisher,

Book cover of Map of Another Town

Why this book?

California-born Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher’s contribution to our culture was revolutionary. Before her, no man or woman wrote about food as they might about art: what was noteworthy in the meal, how the cauliflower was cooked or the paté presented, and how all of it made her feel. She is perhaps best known for her masterpiece The Gastronomical Me, her memoir about her sensory awakening around food, cooking, and love when she moved to Dijon, France. After returning to the States, Fisher moved with her two daughters to Aix-en-Provence following World War II. By now, the memoir of Provence—the farmhouse, lavender fields, and dappled summer light—have become a genre unto themselves. But as with everything this trailblazer wrote, few have ever done is as well or with such exquisite understatement as Fisher did in Map of Another Town.

It is a soulful and beautifully atmospheric chronicle of building a life as a single mother in a provincial town. As she discovers Aix and the gentle characters who populate it, she simultaneously carves out her own inner map. Best of all are the descriptions of meals at Les Deux Garçons right in the center of town, washed down with a bottle of blanc-de-blanc wine. 


The Josephine B. Trilogy

By Sandra Gulland,

Book cover of The Josephine B. Trilogy

Why this book?

It can be difficult to recall that, while laying waste to the armies of Europe, proving himself to be one of the finest military commanders in history, Napoleon was writing salty love letters home to his wife. Narrated in first-person diary-style by Josephine, Sandra Gulland’s sensational trio of books is a credit to the sometimes-overlooked genre of historical autobiographical fiction. The events around her life with the self-anointed Emperor of the French are defined with both intimacy and sweep. Josephine emerges as a most intriguing woman, charming and clever, and a full participant aside from her husband as he rises and falls.

The three books cover the many phases of her exceptional life. From her childhood in the French colony of Martinique, through her first marriage and imprisonment during the revolution, to her fateful introduction to the “strange little man,” and through their marriage and demise, the woman who became Empress died penniless at her château outside Paris. Throughout the three books, Josephine remains a deft storyteller and somehow reminds us that those who make history—or have a front row to it—are only too humans.  


The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

Book cover of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It

Why this book?

If you have any interest in champagne—and who doesn’t?—this meticulously researched book about the woman who built Veuve Clicquot into the powerhouse luxury brand it still is today is essential reading. It is almost hard to fathom: in 1805, when her husband dies, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin inherits his struggling family champagne house. Plagued with debts and self-doubt, the twenty-seven-year-old widow, or “veuve”, puts her innate entrepreneurial acumen to work. Considering that women at the time had no role besides tending to their families, she defied countless odds of the day, rescued the company, and became a business legend. Swirling around her is the drama of the Napoleonic wars. One anecdote author Mazzeo (an academic and historian) tells grippingly: when Russia closed off their ports to French imports, Mme.

Clicquot identified a way to penetrate the blockade and get 10,550 bottles of her 1811 vintage to the czar’s home city of St. Petersburg. To this day, the Great Comet that was visible in the sky for most of that year still graces the cork and Veuve Clicquot’s enduringly yellow label. 


Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart

By Jean-Claude Baker, Chris Chase,

Book cover of Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart

Why this book?

I can’t remember a 600-page book that I’ve ever read so fast and yes, so hungrily. Baker’s trajectory defies credulity. Above all, it is the paradigmatic story of a Black American targeted by racism in her own country, who found acceptance and fame (and in Baker’s case, so much more) in Paris. From the slums of St. Louis, at nineteen she became an instant sensation with her dazzling performance at La Revue Nègre. She strolled the Champs Élysées with a cheetah and, during the war, hid Jewish refugees in her château in the Dordogne. In the 1963 March on Washington, she spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, the only woman to address the crowd that day. With exhaustive research that never weighs down the narrative, author Jean-Claude Baker, her unofficial thirteenth child who worked for her towards the end of her life, paints a portrait of a hugely complex woman.

As a Black performer victimized by racism in the country of her birth, she also, according to the author, mistreated others (particularly himself) with her mercurial ways. Even when he strips away the veils, we all benefit from knowing the story of the most fascinating and iconic women/activists of the twentieth century. In a fitting coda to the story of Josephine Baker, in late 2021 she became the sixth woman and the first Black woman to be honored at Paris’ Pantheon. 


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