Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, biographies of French women resisters are appearing with increasing frequency. University and graduate students all over the world are drawn to the subject of women and resistance in greater numbers, while academic studies of resistance and women (and later, gender) have been underway since the early 1980s. It is a compelling topic, yet the role of women in the French underground was overlooked and undervalued for decades after the close of the war.
One reason for this is that many such women, activists in a range of groups, networks, parties, and movements, failed to see themselves as political actors on a par with men. Women were much less likely than their male counterparts to write about their wartime activism. It was not until the 1980s that some of them, Lucie Aubrac for one, began to commit their experiences to paper. Some women explained the delay by invoking their newfound freedom from family and work obligations, which had given them the time and peace of mind to write. Others attributed a new self-awareness to the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies. But self-recognition did not necessarily translate into writing and speaking. Nor did they claim that their resistance activism had anything to do with women’s interests. They identified as resisters, not women resisters per se.
The opening of the archives and the testimony of surviving activists have permitted us a fuller picture of the extent and nature of women’s involvement in the underground.
Women activists occupied a space that was both vertical and horizontal. In the vertical sense, women are present at every echelon of underground organizations, from top to bottom. They also performed a wide range of tasks in groups that varied by size, locale, and political orientation.
Resisting was hard and dangerous work. Women were spies, gunrunners, decoders, forgers. They engaged in reconnaissance, transmission of messages, support services, and propaganda. Of all the jobs held by women, the liaison agent, or courier, is by far the most emblematic. Because women were less suspect than men, they because the human links connecting people to one another, ferrying messages on foot or by bicycle, conveying information from supervisors to rank-and-file, transporting arms and ammunition in market baskets and baby carriages.
A few iconic photographs of women resisters create the impression that women were active combatants. Women were members of armed groups but they rarely bore arms or participated in pitched confrontations between partisans and police. That said, they fought with their bodies and even umbrellas!
The women who demonstrated for food on the rue de Buci, a central Parisian market, were intercepted by police while raiding a shop. Some managed to free themselves; one demonstrator beat a shop assistant with her umbrella. Others were freed by male members of a partisan group posted in the area to protect them. In the following days, many of the people involved in the demonstration, men and women, were rounded up and arrested. The women endured brutal police interrogations, imprisonment, and deportation to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp for women outside Berlin. Some of the men who had been charged with their protection were executed. Today Sardines Are Not for Sale: A Street Protest in Occupied Paris (Oxford University Press, 2020) tells the story of the demonstration, its protagonists, and its many ramifications.
The only resistance organization to organize women (defined as housewives and mothers) around so-called 'women’s issues' was the underground French Communist party (PCF). Organizers founded 'popular women’s committees' in urban neighborhoods and rural towns. Their most enduring legacy is the underground women’s press, a rich body of artisanal broadsheets and newspapers intended to inform a public whose only source of information was the state-censored press.
It was the BBC, however, that reached the widest swath of theFrench public. Listening to the BBC was illegal, but so were gunrunning, printing illegal newspapers, and demonstrating. De Gaulle’s Free French based in London broadcast a regular news show, in French for French listeners, over the BBC airwaves. The Free French also parachuted radio operators and saboteurs, some of whom were women, inside France to help coordinate the disparate and far-flung groups of the French underground.
Women resisters who rose to positions of prominence, such as such as Marie- Madeleine Fourcade and Berty Albrecht, were more often affiliated with Gaullist networks. Women associated with Communist-run groups were more numerous, but resisters as a whole, women and men, constituted but a tiny minority of the French population. Their impact was vastly disproportionate to their numbers.
At the Liberation and beyond, combat was remembered as the sine qua non of the underground movement. Women supported, fed, clothed, hid, and equipped partisan fighters, but they were far less likely than men to bear arms. At war’s end, their role in the Resistance was eclipsed by that of their male counterparts. Thanks to a rich archival record and the testimony of survivors, both oral and written, we are in a far better position today to take the full measure of women’s role at every level of the underground movement.