After France was crushed, resistance to the German conquerors came from two principal sources: Communists and the Gaullist Free French. French women were critical to the entire resistance movement as they exploited their femininity. Women moved messages and small arms around towns and cities, provided safe houses and did opportunistic spying. These were all capital offences for which many women died. Their story is glorious even if it didn’t include ‘death or glory’ acts of valour. Women were the backbone of the resistance movement but were under-regarded and treated contemptuously by de Gaulle in the immediate post-war period.
The demographics of France in 19401 suggested that women would lead the resistance fighters. This wasn’t to be. Both Nazis and the resistance groups shared the same gender biases. The Nazi gender bias enabled women to use their femininity to evade close scrutiny. This was critical as there were numerous check points manned with the Gestapo in attendance. Many female resistance activists began as couriers. Being couriers meant much more than carrying messages. They transported messages and small items, which could be discreetly hidden.
Cécile Rol-Tanguy… for instance, worked as the personal Agent de Liaison for her husband Henri Rol-Tanguy, carrying orders around Paris in the bedding of her baby’s pram, as well as revolvers, grenades and ammunition hidden in potato sacks2.
Cecile was a resistance fighter quite prepared to exploit her baby in her resistance activities.
Lucie Aubrac famously duped the Gestapo and rescued her husband. She led a double life as a mother and resistance fighter3. The Nazi ‘Kinder, Kirche, Kuche’ policy stereotyped women4, which framed their biases towards French women. As the war progressed, it became clear that the Germans had lost. From then on, both French civilians and resistance fighters were brutally treated. Madeleine Truel’s expertise was forgery.
Madeleine´s job was to forge documents, especially passports, which were delivered to Jewish fugitives and allied soldiers that had parachuted over the French capital5. Madeleine was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and died on the infamous Death March6 as the Nazis tried to outrun the advancing Soviet Army.
Simone Seqouin began her resistance career at the end of the war in 1944 as an 18 year old woman. She too began with courier work but transitioned to ‘death or glory’ sabotage and shoot-out battles with Wehrmacht soldiers7. These famously courageous women shouldn’t over-shadow the courage of women who did wonderful acts of bravery over extended periods of time. The reseaux de sauvetage was a network of safe houses mostly for Jewish children whilst reseaux d’evasions moved people through France and safely out of the country. Both relied on women risking the well-being of themselves and their families. The penalty for failure was death.
Andree Peel (ne Virot) was in the resistance from the beginning of the occupation. Her activities typified General de Gaulle’s concept of a resistance fighter, apart from her being a woman.
Virot’s team, which ran the VAR escape route across the beaches of northern Brittany, used torches to guide allied planes to improvised landing strips for Special Operations Executive drops and pick-ups and smuggled fugitive airmen on to submarines and gunboats along remote parts of the coast. All of this work was extremely hazardous; capture would result in torture and probable execution. During Virot’s time in charge, 102 allied airmen passed through her section to freedom.
She was betrayed immediately after D-Day, tortured, sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and then on to Buchenwald. Andree cheated death in a way which fiction writers might reject as being implausible.
It was here, while being lined up to be shot with other internees by the retreating SS, that she cheated death once more thanks to the arrival of a detachment of American troops from the 9th Armoured Infantry Battalion8.
Andree Peel wasn’t one of the six women who received medals from General de Gaulle after the war9. Crippling gender biases survived the trauma of war. French women resistance fighters were deliberately marginalised by de Gaulle, notwithstanding the fact that their contribution was critical to the success of the resistance itself. Women were in the forefront of the resistance regardless of de Gaulle’s petty biases. Those memorialised here are the tip of a huge number of silently courageous women who routinely exposed themselves and their families to lethal danger over a considerable period of time.
Addendum: French resistance demographics 1940-44
The defeat of the French army in 1940 led to 70,000 being evacuated to Britain. There were a further 2.5 million prisoners of war held in Germany some of whom were used as forced labour from 1943. The Germans passed the so-called Service du Travail Obligatoire, which demanded ‘volunteer’ workers for their economy. About 600,000 Frenchmen were sent to Germany under the provisions of this law. (Women were unaffected.) Consequently there were few men of fighting age in France in this period, which underlines the power of gender biases in the resistance as there was no increase in the numbers of women leaders.
1 https://voxeu.org/article/demographic-consequence-first-world-war Section on declining fertility long-term.
3 “Aubrac’s account…. offers many examples of the ways she mobilised her femininity to dupe the Germans.”
6 For Death marches see https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-9/death-marches