Today, Joan of Arc is revered around the world. The Roman Catholic Church canonized her in 1920, and claimed her image as their own. During my most recent trip to Paris, we visited a prominent boulevard named “Jean D’Arc”, after the beloved “Maid D’Orleans.” However, my visit to Rouen, France recently, with my nine year old niece in tow, revealed quite a different side to the story. Why is this young girl, only 18 when she led the army of France into battle, and 19 when burned at the stake, portrayed so differently now, than at the time of her execution in 1431?
Joan of Arc’s family expected her to marry and have a family. Constrained by both class and gender, Joan’s life consisted of church, farmwork, and the hope of a good marriage with healthy children. Nevertheless, Joan, by her own account, asked to be brought to the Dauphin, or “Crown Prince” of France, and, while dressed in men’s clothing, asked to lead his army into battle. While at first the Dauphin did not take her seriously, he ultimately acquiesced, figuring he had nothing to lose. Dressed as a male knight, and indistinguishable from her male counterparts, Joan led the French army to victory over the English at Orléans. Soon thereafter, she accompanied the Dauphin to his coronation, made possible by this military success.
No one had ever seen the likes of Joan of Arc, with her unsurpassed bravery. A slight young girl, no one expected such behavior from a female. Celebrated by the French, the English demonized her as a witch. Captured a year after her military success by the angry British, Joan of Arc faced various accusations, including, the charge “of wearing men’s clothing.” Having stepped outside her traditional gender role, in the field of battle, no less, against a very bitter enemy, Joan of Arc found herself declared “a witch” and burned at the stake in a public market.
Despite the strides that women have made today, we still face hardships and criticisms with very real consequences. Women in business today often find themselves “playing in the sandbox” of men, and war in business can be as real as war on the battlefield. Previously, as a business co-owner, I personally felt the repercussions of demanding equality with a male counterpart. The struggle included demanding equal pay and authority, followed by the pushback, the slander, and the demonization he portrayed about me to others. Nevertheless, I continued on without him, rebuilding and rebranding the company. Joan of Arc, while also very strong, could not escape the harsh Catholic trial at the hands of the English. 500 years later they publicly apologized and made her a saint. I am unsure if any such apology will ever come to me, or the countless other women who have categorically suffered after demanding equality within the confines of the business world.
My nine year old niece sat through the trial of Joan of Arc, and heard the stories of a black cat being thrown at her burning body. A cross now stands where her execution occurred. Had Joan of Arc lived, she would have been at the right hand of the King of France. Today her identity is defined and claimed by those her killed her. Contemporary women have a greater opportunity to define themselves, their successes, their gender, and their lives. While we still face barriers, they can be overcome through personal perseverance, and by not allowing others to define our identities to others. As a female business owner, I am certainly thankful to have received an excellent education, to have a supportive husband, and the self-esteem that my parents encouraged within me, to fight, to win, and to most importantly help others do the same.