École Polytechnique: a clarion call to women

École Polytechnique

Initially reserved to men, the School soon attracted exceptional women scientists who helped a change in perceptions and overcome discrimination.
Discover some anecdotes and milestones that mark the history of the opening of the School to women.

Photography of a portrait of Catherine Monge née Huart (c.1789) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

The late 18th century and the French Revolution

By the time the French Revolution took place, the world of science was no longer inhabited solely by men. Women already played an important role in it, albeit a role long ignored. The École Polytechnique, a major center for science, was outwardly reserved exclusively for men—the greatest scientists of their time together with their students, who were also men—but it also showed a certain openness to women. Catherine Huart, shown here, was the wife of École Polytechnique founder Gaspard Monge. She hosted a salon regularly attended by the Bonapartes, the Berthollets, and the Carnots, thereby continuing the tradition of the salons of the Enlightenment.

Letter from Mrs Lavoisier to the Ecole Polytechnique concerning her rights to keep her husband's scientific material. (1795) by Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, épouse LavoisierÉcole Polytechnique

Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze (married name Lavoisier)

Following the death of her husband the great chemist Lavoisier, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze exercised her right to recover her husband's property and continue with the publication of his work. Notably, she demanded that property destined for the École Polytechnique's laboratories be returned to her.

Experiments on the respiration of man at rest (1784) by Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, épouse LavoisierÉcole Polytechnique

Marie-Anne Pierrette Lavoisier, during the experiment on the breathing of man at rest.

Sophie Germain (2020) by Ecole polytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique

The incredible story of the student named Leblanc

When the esteemed professor of mathematical analysis at the École Polytechnique, Joseph-Louis Lagrange—one of Europe's greatest scientists—exchanged letters with Antoine-Augustin Leblanc, a student at the school (from the 1794 intake), he had no inkling that he was being duped. The letters were exceptional in their mathematical content. When the professor requested a meeting with Leblanc in person, he was astonished by the arrival of a young woman! She was Sophie Germain (1776-1831), one of the rare female mathematicians at the time. As she did not have access to the most renowned schools, which were closed to women, Sophie Germain used subterfuge to engage in written discussions with their great professors! Far from being offended, Lagrange became a friend of Sophie Germain, who continued to use her pen name, Leblanc, until 1807.

Student file for Leblanc (class of 1794) (1800) by Ecole polytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique

The career of Antoine-Augustin Leblanc, after his degree course at the Ecole Polytechnique (1794-1797), remains rather mysterious. It is assumed that he met Sophie Germain.

Portrait of Lagrange (1864) by Alexandre-Marie ColinÉcole Polytechnique

Joseph-Louis Lagrange was the first professor of mathematical analysis at the Ecole Polytechnique. He became Sophie Germain's mentor in her early days as a mathematician.

Mainguet Costume: Gamma Point Ball 1877 (1877) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

Women's roles played by the students

The Point Gamma ball is a costume party that has been organized by students since 1862, and it was not open to outsiders. The roles of women were therefore played by the students themselves.

Considering the lack of executives, the recruitment of students at the Ecole Polytechnique will be open to women from 1924 onwards. (1922) by Michel FondeurÉcole Polytechnique

Women at the helm?

World War I and the subsequent post-war period opened up a whole world of new activity for women, as the men who had left for various fronts and occupied areas, were killed, or injured and disabled. And so, in the Roaring Twenties, the students imagined their school being opened up to women, in order to compensate for the shortage of educated men.

Considering the lack of executives, the recruitment of students at the Ecole Polytechnique will be open to women from 1924 onwards. (1922) by Michel FondeurÉcole Polytechnique

Women wearing pants?

The painter of these watercolors imagined female students of the École Polytechnique wearing pants, but in reality this was still a long way from being accepted.

Considering the lack of executives, the recruitment of students at the Ecole Polytechnique will be open to women from 1924 onwards. (1922) by Michel FondeurÉcole Polytechnique

Was rugby a sport exclusively for men in the 1920s? Why should it be? In the students' heads, the female attendees could play it too.

Miss Carva 1930 (1931) by MacÉcole Polytechnique

Miss Carva

In the 1930s, the election of Miss Carva gave students the opportunity to be made up as women and vote for the most beautiful contestant! Carva was a nickname for the school, drawing on the name of Emmanuel Carvallo, who was Director of Studies from 1909 to 1920.

Miss Carva 1930 (1931) by MacÉcole Polytechnique

Miss Carva 1930 (1931) by MacÉcole Polytechnique

A woman student of the class of 1983 (1984) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

1972: Opening the school to women

The École polytechnique was opened to women in principle in 1970, and six women were admitted following the 1972 entry exams. This date tallies with that of the armed forces being opened up to women, as a result of law 72-662 of July 13, 1972.

Anne Chopinet (c.1972) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

Anne Chopinet was received in 1972 as the top of the class, the year in which women were admitted for the first time to the École polytechnique.

Caroline Aigle (c. 1997) by Jean-Luc DenielÉcole Polytechnique

Women in leadership

Caroline Aigle (1974-2007), of the 1994 class, was the first licensed female fighter pilot in France in 1999.

Rose Dieng (2020) by Ecole polytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique

Rose Dieng-Kuntz (1956-2008) was the first African woman to be admitted to the Ecole Polytechnique in 1976. In 2005 she was awarded the Irène Joliot-Curie Prize for Scientist of the Year.

Claudine Hermann, first woman professor (physics) at the Ecole Polytechnique (1992) by Jean-Luc DenielÉcole Polytechnique

The first female teachers

Claudine Hermann, physics teacher, was the first woman to be recruited to the role of professor at the École Polytechnique in 1992.

Women students during the parade of July 14, 1985 on the Champs-Elysées. (1984) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

Female student numbers on the rise

From 2.22% female students in 1972, the figure passed the 10% threshold for the first time in 1986. Today, it oscillates between 15 and 20% depending on the year. This means the numbers of women have grown from 7 out of 315 students in 1972, to 92 out of 481 students in 2006. These figures are in line with the trend at other engineering schools.

Women students during the Flag Presentation Ceremony to the class of 2004 by the class of 2003. (2005) by Philippe LavialleÉcole Polytechnique

For the sake of equality with men, women obtained the wearing of the bicorne hat in 1995. The utopia of wearing pants became a reality in 2021.

Female high school students at the Ecole Polytechnique to promote engineering careers (2020) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

A call to female high school students

The proportion of women attending preparatory classes in the field of science for the top schools in France is currently around 30%. It is important, therefore, to raise awareness among high school age girls of the attractiveness of careers that some people still see as being primarily for men.

Polytechnicienne student (2004) by Philippe LavialleÉcole Polytechnique

Women's futures

In physics, just three Nobel prize winners have yet been women. Gender stereotypes are formed in early childhood and, 50 years since the first female students arriving at the École Polytechnique, society still has an influence on people's choice of career. Nevertheless, new generations of women around the world are pushing boundaries and fighting to break the "glass ceiling". At Polytechnique, a new Bachelor's degree program, which opened in 2017, already welcomes 43% women.

Credits: Story

Ecole polytechnique
Historical Resources Center/Mus'X

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