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29 April 1970: the Ecole Polytechnique opens its doors to women

What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that Global Industrie invites you to rediscover, every week, a key event which occurred around this time… in another age. This week, we take you back just over half a century to the 29th of April 1970, when the law authorizing women to take the entrance examination for the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique was enacted. 


In the years following the events of 1968, a full-scale revolution took place in the hallowed engineering school founded in 1794 by the Convention and militarized in 1804 by Napoleon! Previously exclusively male, it was now proposed to open it to women…

We have to go back to the carnage of World War I, which led to a considerable shortage of young men, to see certain engineering schools, including Centrale Paris, Supélec and Supaéro, adopting a mixed recruitment policy. The Ecole Polytechnique had always remained deaf to such demands, however, despite the fact that a “Women’s Ecole Polytechnique”, which had no connection to it, had been created in the inter-war period.

The plan was personally backed by the then Defense Minister, the former Prime Minister Michel Debré, who had already been instrumental in the opening of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) to the “weaker” sex. The initiative had far from unanimous support, as is clearly illustrated by an excellent France Info documentary, available on the website of the Institut National Audiovisuel (INA), in which we hear in particular the President of the Defense Committee at the National Assembly, the notoriously controversial Alexandre Sanguinetti, state that he is against this reform because he "loves women" and therefore believes them to be "superior and not our equals"…



It nevertheless took two years for the reform to be implemented. It was therefore not until 1972 that seven women, out of a total intake of 315 students, entered the prestigious institution for the first time. Among them was a certain Anne Chopinet, who had the audacity to come first in the entrance examination! This status as the top student in her class earned her the right to carry the flag for the School in the Bastille Day Parade on the 14th of July 1973 and thus become an outright national heroine featured on the cover of Paris Match! She then pursued a career in the Ministry of Industry, followed by the Ministry of Finance, before becoming a technical advisor to the President of the Republic from 1995 to 2000. Along with her fellow students, she was also the inspiration for the 1982 film Tout feu, tout flamme (“All Fire and Flame”), in which Isabelle Adjani plays an Ecole Polytechnique graduate working as an advisor to the Minister of the Economy.



It would be wrong, however, to imagine that a fundamental barrier was then broken. The percentage of women in the Ecole Polytechnique has so far never exceeded 20%. The Court of Auditors considers moreover that the method of recruitment accentuates an imbalance already seen in preparatory science classes, in which only 28% of second-year students are women.

Slowly but surely, however, progress is being made. In 1992 Claudine Hermann became the first woman to be appointed as a professor at the school, and in 2008 Marie Guillou became Chairman of its Board of Directors, a position she was to occupy until 2013. Simultaneously, numerous initiatives were launched to promote “women engineers”, including the creation of the association "X au féminin", later to become "Sciences ParisTech au féminin".