Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Women: The forgotten heroes of the French Resistance

After reading the fabulous autobiography  of Jacques Lusseyran's short (1924-1971) life: "And There Was Light" (Lusseyran was the young and blind Frenchman who became a hero of the Resistance) I turned my attention to the much ignored (and downplayed) role of women in the French Resistance.

I did so by reading "Sisters in the Resistance -  How Women Fought to Free France 1940-1945" by Margaret Collins Weitz  -  John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1995).

When history is told and re-told it is almost as though women were invisible; as if they did not exist. Weitz's book is a healthy corrective to this male myopia.  She recounts (with excellent research) the account of the many women whose love for France led them to resist.

These women faced many impediments to their patriotism (matriotism?) and their action.

1.  French culture was unbelievably patriarchal - wives and daughters were under strict obedience to their fathers, and to the Catholic Church. Resistance faced the double impediment of (a) resisting cultural and familial norms, and (b) the Nazi occupiers.

2. The Maquis could not conceive that women were capable of bearing arms and engage in acts of sabotage.

3. The perfidious and Fascist  Petain Regime (Vichy France) viewed women as no more than child-bearers, destined to purify the French peoples by child-birth.

Many matriots resisted the culture, the Church, the Maquis and the Petainists:  and engaged in noble, wily, courageous,  and clever acts of resistance to the German occupation and to Marshal Petain's illegal regime.

Many were betrayed, then tortured, then deported to the camps at Ravensbruck and Buchenwald.  Few survived.

None of the women thought of themselves as "chest-thumping" heroes.  They simply did what needed to be done.

Very many of these resistant women were protestant Christians, or (as yet) un-deported Jews, i.e. those whose historical memories recalled the days when they had been persecuted by mainstream French culture and law.

And very many were the  wives, daughters and sisters of Frenchmen who had perished in The Great War -  just twenty or so years before.


Post war when "every Frenchman had been a member of the Resistance"  (as if!) next to none of these women were honoured  by the De Gaulle government.

That's tragically inevitable when we think of his-story rather than her-story.

I recommend "Sisters in the Resistance -  How Women Fought to Free France 1940-1945" by Margaret Collins Weitz  -  John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1995).

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