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Essay: Women in the French Resistance: The Unsung Heroes of World War II

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: World War II

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Prior to the events of World War II, Nazi Germany and the other countries associated with the Axis Powers slowly started to invade their surrounding countries. During World War II, France sadly succumbed to its Nazi oppressors. Since France had alliances with England, the United States, and Russia, who were all members of the Allied Powers, they received help from their allied countries against the Axis Powers countries. Many French men started a resistance and fought the Axis Powers. However, women played just as big of a role in France’s freedom. Women in the French Resistance played an important role in the context of the resistance to occupying German forces during World War II. Women represented 15 to 20% of the total number of French Resistance fighters within the country. Women also represented 15% of political deportations to Nazi-run concentration camps (Delbo 1997). They had many underground roles in the Resistance, but were just as important and effective. They would be spies for the French Resistance and infiltrate Nazi invaded territory.

 One of the most notorious women to assist the Resistance was Lucie Aubrac. Although her role in the Resistance wasn’t truly known, her involvement in the Resistance led to the regional South Liberation. She joined the Resistance, and in 1945 she helped form the Resistance group La Dernière Colonne, later known as Libération-sud, with Emmanuel d'Astier de La Vigerie, Jean Cavaillès, two members of the French Resistance, and her husband Raymond Aubrac, another famous face of the Resistance. During 1941, the group carried out two sabotage attacks at train stations in Perpignan and Cannes. In February, they organised the distribution of 10,000 propaganda flyers, but one of the distributors was caught by the police, leading to the arrest of d'Astier's niece and uncle. The group decided to cease activities. After a few months hiatus, they began to work on an underground newspaper, Libération. The first edition was put together with the help of the typographers from a local newspaper and printed on paper supplied by local trade-unionists. Ten thousand copies were produced in July 1941(Wieviorka 2013).

Women weren’t only just underground spies for the Resistance, they had major roles in different Resistance groups. One example is Suzanne Buisson, cofounder of the Comité d'action socialiste (CAS), who was the treasurer until her arrest by the Gestapo, who found their headquarters and arrested those involved with the group. Since she was Jewish, she was sent to Auschwitz for being both a Jew and résistante, and ultimately died (Binot 2005).

Although Buisson was a cofounder of CAS, there has only ever been one woman at the head of a network. This woman was Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. She became the head of a network called “Alliance” after its former head,  Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, was arrested. She worked with Loustaunau-Lacau on his magazine L'ordre national, an espionage publication. He believed espionage to be crucial in the war effort. Navarre recruited Fourcade for a network of spies and to work on L'ordre national. Her first mission for Navarre was to create sections of unoccupied France, then recruit and assign an agent to these section. This network became the "Alliance" (Cointet 2006).

Although Fourcade came to be the head of “Alliance” she had to do so with manipulation. Women played an important role in the French Resistance, but sadly were discriminated against. No woman ever led a movement, or a maquis, a guerilla group, or a Liberation Committee, none was installed as a Commissioner within the Provisional Government of the Republic of France or a Minister of the Liberation. Only a limited minority took part in the armed battles. Fourcade was only able to take charge of “Alliance” by tricking the British into thinking she was a man to get authority of the group that she helped start. Although women had more involvement with physical affairs in countries like Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and the occupied USSR, feared and as numerous as men, they were a small minority in the maquis in France.

Women organized demonstrations of housewives in 1940, were active in the comités populaires of the clandestine, and ever present with encouragement and material aid for strikers, as in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais in May 1941, as well as supporting the maquis (Kedward 1999). They were indispensable as typists, and above all as liaison agents. This is due to the fact that Germans distrusted women less, and also because the numerous identification controls against resistors of the Service du travail obligatoire (STO) did not apply to them.

Many women sacrificed their lives, politically and literally, to help aid the Resistance. One of these women were Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux. Lefaucheux was a French women and human rights activist, who helped the French Resistance by letting the members use their apartment in Paris as a headquarters and safe haven for families of the members of the Resistance. She also helped free her husband, Pierre Lefaucheux, from imprisonment, as both she and her husband were very important to the resistance.

One of the most noted member of the Resistance is Andrée Peel, also known as Agent Rose. She worked against German occupation in France and helped aid the Resistance. At the start of the German occupation in France, Peel quickly became involved with the French Resistance and helped distribute secret newspapers but was later appointed head of an under-section of the Resistance. She and her team used torches to guide allied planes to improvised landing strips and helped airmen who had landed in France to escape onto submarines and gunboats, saving the lives of more than one hundred soldiers and airmen, and aided more than 20,000 people (Peel). She was arrested in Paris and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp; she was later transferred to the concentration camp at Buchenwald before her eventual release. During this time she also survived meningitis. She was being lined up to be shot by firing squad at Buchenwald when the US Army arrived to liberate the prisoners.

 Woman played a huge role in all aspects of the French Resistance, for the Germans did not expect much from them. One agency, named the Special Operations Executives, was particularly successful in vitiating the Germans. The Special Operations Executive's main task was to link up with resistance movements to undermine the Germans in the countries they had occupied. One group in particular did it all, a communist group named the Manouchian Group. "The Manouchian Group led raids against German factories and complicated the ability of the Germans to organize troops." The raids against the German factories were cardinal to their defeat because the factories held everything from German weapons and supplies to badly needed food for the troops. These simple raids led to the disheartening of the German troops, as well as greatly mitigating them. The Manouchian Group is an example of what Resistance groups all across France did to fight off the Germans. The common enemy of Germany unified France because they were all fighting for the same purpose: to liberate their home country. The works that treat the subject of women in the Resistance are few, essentially descriptive and mostly based upon oral history. This shows how far behind the social history of the Resistance is. Until now, the predominant history has focused on the organizations of the Resistance, the réseaux, the groups, the “maquis,” the making of Free France and the military campaigns. The Resistance has been studied for itself, but its connections with society and the way social history influenced it have not been sufficiently examined. It is, therefore, not surprising that women remain a secondary subject matter, since the Resistance was not a feminist cause, and since the underground organizations were deliberately made up of both sexes.

As for the existing books about women in the Resistance, they are of three sorts. The authors rarely call into question their relationship with their male comrades, nor do they always view their experience as particularly female. There are only three cases in the memoirs of women resisters where they focus self-consciously on women. Either the author was deported, enrolled in the women’s Free French Forces, or a member of the Women’s Committees set up by the Communist Party. In these books, attention is drawn to women through state or partisan traditions bearing no relation to the Resistance. A second series of books offers portrait galleries in which women are often presented in alphabetical order. They were conceived as works of fidelity and memory. As eyewitnesses, the resisters felt they had a duty to commemorate those who disappeared in prisons and camps.

 These writings constitute what historians somewhat contemptuously call hagiography, forgetting that these works were war memorials. In France, the names of the civil resisters are not systematically inscribed on the war memorials that almost every town or village built after the First World War. And women’s names are still rarer on these monuments. The third sort of book classifies types of resistance activity, such as rescue-escape lines, groups, networks and “maquis,” or such supposedly female activities as women at arms, support services, and room and board. These books are descriptive. They are moving and entertaining, but do not inspire much reflection about the condition of women in that time or about what the Resistance changed or left intact in the gendered division of roles. Nor do they scientifically examine the social change that the war may have caused.

Another feature of the current history of women resisters is related to sources. It is based largely on memories or interviews. This is not the place to speak about the pros and cons of oral history. Everyone agrees on the necessity to juxtapose and compare sources whatever they are, but it is not always done in these books. It may be the case, nevertheless, that oral history remains the only way to acquire the information when archives have disappeared. Such was the situation of the former deportees of Ravensbrück in 1965, when they published the first book on the camp.

If the history of women in the Resistance has developed slowly, it is not only because women’s studies in France were delayed by the prevailing universalism. It is due to another factor: women themselves subscribed to what seems to us a conservative vision. Indeed, no clandestine paper ever protested against Vichy’s family policy, its pronatalism, and its patriarchal ideology. In the underground movement, the Communist Party was the only group that tried to organize women in separate committees. But communist women propaganda was based on a traditional conception of women.

Women’s low visibility in French society paradoxically played to their advantage under occupation; it meant they could act as ideal couriers, with no one, least of all the Germans, suspecting them of carrying important messages, concealing arms and papers in children’s prams, or conveying vital supplies to Resistance members in hiding. They themselves remained largely silent about their activities, often demurring to their male comrades, who took full credit for the Resistance’s achievements. The French Resistance opened many doors for French women. They gained the right to vote in 1944, during the time of World War II, and it allowed many women to gain insights into their own capacities and potential, even if they chose, for the most part, not to pursue it.

If the Resistance as a whole is part of French identity, the different types of resistance, among them that of women, do not benefit from the same status. On the contrary, official commemorations of the Resistance are based upon two implicit statements: that the Resistance and the nation are somewhat equivalent, the Resistance being viewed as the uprising of the whole nation, and that to differentiate among the resisters would go against the very principles of the Resistance, its universalism, its refusal to make any distinction in race or origin. The assimilationism that is part of the ideology of the French Republic hinders the recognition of particularisms, whether regional, cultural or gender. The Resistance has two national heroes, General de Gaulle since 1940, and Jean Moulin since 1964, both male and French. Women have more recently got recognition, but not early enough, as many, if not all, of the spectacular women have passed. The French fear of multiculturalism could be sufficient to explain the slow development of women’s studies in France, and indeed, the history of women resisters has not yet been studied as much as that of the Resistance as a whole.

The French Resistance is considered one of the greatest weapons the Allies had on their side, for the French Resistance provided endless intelligence, weakened the Germans, and presented a united front against the Germans even after the capitulation of Paris. The Resistance may not have taken place on the battlefields, but it was without a doubt a huge fighting force against the Germans. Without the French Resistance, the war could have possibly resulted in the end of freedom for Europe, and leadership for Hitler. Had it not been for the women who helped the Resistance, it would have failed and many more lives would have been lost, as well as France to the Axis Powers.

Many women lost their lives for the sake of their country. Their sacrifice is what kept the French Resistance going. Their dedication to the fight for liberation is what truly helped the French succeed. Although they were used as only spies and liaison agents, they made the most of what they were given. They were not expected to do more than the normal housewife by their oppressors, which made it extremely easy for them to be able to undermine the Germans that occupied France. They sacrificed their homes, jobs, and even their lives, which shows their loyalty to their country. They were faced with discrimination, sexism, but still helped their country. Whether we realize it or not, women helped change history with their sacrifice and dedication to their country. They dealt with many problems thrown their way, but still helped even though it wasn’t expected of them, and also received no representation for helping. French women helped the war efforts as much as possible, making them true war heroes of World War II.

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