The word ‘doyen’ originated in France in the 15th century. It originally was the name for a commanding officer of a regiment of 10 people.1 Doyen then came to mean ‘a leading or senior person in a group or in society.’ By 1905, the word was expanded to the feminine ‘doyenne’ meaning a female leader of a group. Today, the meaning of doyenne is more than just a female leader, but an expert--a woman who is the most prominent and respected person in a particular field.
Simone Biles, arguably the best gymnast in history, Jane Goodall, English primatologist and anthropologist and Coco Chanel of the eponymous label, Chanel, all fall within the category of ‘doyenne.’ From different times and in different fields, these three women stand out as the best in their fields, as record breakers, experts, and mavericks.
The impact that each of these women had and continue to have on society is great.
Simone Biles broke into our minds and hearts during the 2016 Rio Olympics where she won 4 gold medals and one bronze. Biles has shown, like many sporting doyennes preceding her, that a woman’s body is an athlete’s body.
Biles has shown her influence on the sport of gymnastics, shaping the vision and leadership of USA gymnastics from the youthful age of 24. She is a powerhouse and she is a survivor. Biles was briefly in the foster care system as a child and was one of many female gymnasts who reported being sexually abused by a notorious gymnastics doctor. Through all of this, including an ADHD diagnosis, Biles has come out on top. What does this say to other girls and young women that see Biles standing strong on the platform? What does it say to young black girls in a sport which lacks diversity?
Biles is likely to be the face of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. With this huge event in her future, Simone has shunned big brand sponsors and is taking meaningful steps to partners with smaller brands with which she can have more agency to create positive change for women and girls.
Jane Goodall is world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. How does one come to be such an expert? In the case of Jane, it was not by following the mold. Jane’s mother encouraged her
to pursue primatology, a male-dominated field at the time.
Janegoodall.org, the Jane Goodall Institute website, nicely sums up Jane’s past and present work:
“Equipped with little more than a notebook, binoculars, and her fascination with wildlife, Jane Goodall braved a realm of unknowns to give the world a remarkable window into humankind’s closest living relatives. Through nearly 60 years of groundbreaking work, Dr. Jane Goodall has not only shown us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction; she has also redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment. Today she travels the world, speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees and environmental crises, urging each of us to take action on behalf of all living things and planet we share.”
Today, the field of primatology is an area of science with one of the highest proportions of women to men. Jane, along with two other female primatologist, Fossey and Galdikas, collectively known as the “Trimates” became role models for and inspired countless young women who might not have otherwise pursued a career in science.
Like Simone, Coco Chanel, née Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, had a less than perfect childhood. After her mother died when she was 11 years old, Coco’s father sent her to live in a Catholic orphanage. It was there that she learned how to sew. Chanel became an entrepreneur after a failed show business career. She started with hats and soon moved into clothing  Coco made clothes that ‘women could move in.’ Her rise officially ended corsets in everyday women’s fashion. Chanel was the first to make pants a fashion item for women and ushered the use of the color black (yes, black) into women’s clothing.
Fashion was a man’s business in Chanel’s day. Chanel broke that mold. She was a doyenne in fashion and who continues to influence the fashion world. Although Chanel was a shining role model for women, fashion continues to be dominated by men. Even today, although a significant majority of fashion school graduates are women, only 40% of womenswear fashion brands are designed by women and only 14% of the 50 major fashion brands are women led .
The gender inequality in fashion is emblematic of the gender inequality in society at large. We still have a long way to go to reach gender equity and close the gender gap. A big part of this change will have to include more Chanel’s, more Simone’s and more Jane’s in every field and every place. We need doyennes to lead the way.
4. Coco Chanel