“The Resistance was a thousand and one things. There were women in the networks. There were the liason agents; so many. Now liason work is incredibly tiring, apart from the danger. You spent all your time going from one place to another carrying documents or arms. Or taking someone from one spot to another. In those cases, maternal feelings could be brought into play…And you had to travel everywhere with false papers [if you were doing resistance work]. It was exhausting for women. And there were the babies” (Sullerot 33).
Unlike in World War I where the life on the home front had been difficult but men and women had stuck to their clearly defined gender roles, for the first time, ordinary citizens were subject to not just hardship but also potential harm. In the invasion itself, citizens were caught in the crossfire in doing so, bringing the front lines home. And with many French soldiers languishing in German POW camps or in exile in England, many citizens saw it as their duty to stand up and fight instead of the military for God and country.
“Certain days you don’t leave your home….It was forbidden to leave the house. This is very, very difficult to endure. We detested them as occupiers but beyond that, they were Nazis.”(Sullerot 31).
Evelyn Sullerot largely attributes the social dissonance of women’s contribution in the French resistance to the fact that women were much less involved in politics at the time.
“It was easier for women to enter the Resistance because they generally led obscure lives. They didn’t lead public, political lives before the cameras and television. I think that is important. When the Liberation came, the grab for power began to choose among the brave and courageous men who had fought in the Resistance. At this point the women withdrew. It is important to understand that they were very much involved in the Resistance, but in obscurity, discreet and clandestine” (Sullerot 27).
When the war ended, women went back to their traditional and more conservative social roles with some progress made towards establishing equality but nothing revolutionary.
There was a strong communist movement in France. The Nazis sought to exterminate the Communists, which merely strengthened the resolve of many to fight back and join resistance movements, although after the war, Sullerot states that many French Communists used their status as former resisters to elevate themselves on the political stage weave a heroic image of themselves.
Women contributed all kinds of labor towards the French resistance. While most of these jobs were discrete, some women did take up combat roles. Though they were few, the fact that they existed it is an amazing contradiction against traditional gender roles; for millennia, women had not been allowed to participate in warfare. (Schwartz 127)
With the general feeling that, after the war, France should return to normalcy, many of the efforts that people in the resistance went unrecognized in favor of national unity. The fact that women had played very discrete roles meant that their overall role in the resistance was left in the shadows. During the post war period of France, these women were not given the recognition they deserved, despite never abandoning their country, and overcoming sexist traditions in order to save France.
Why the accounts of women in the Resistance matter today
- Women’s roles in the Resistance are part of a contested period in France’s history – since the end of the war, French people and outsiders have continued to debate the extent of acts of collaboration and resistance during the Occupation
- Women’s participation in the Resistance reveals how women manipulated and defied the gender stereotypes of their society – similar rigid conceptions of women’s role in society, which exclude them from public life and deny them the right of independent decision, prevail in many present-day cultures
- The women’s motives for resisting – defending their country, their family, their own way of life from what many of the résistantes saw as an assault on reason – transcend the specific conflict, and motivate women and men to resist various forms of oppression in our own time