In France, women have long played a vital role in the military. Like most modern militaries, in multiple conflicts the French army had “camp followers,” mostly women, but also men and children, who took care of the cooking, laundering, and other tasks needed to maintain a large standing army. During the French Revolution, some women moved into support roles within the military, but continued to be relegated to auxiliary positions. When Germany invaded France in 1940, the French military surrendered, and the French army was disbanded. The lack of an official French army and an occupying German force gave rise to the French resistance, the paramilitary group that played a pivotal role in helping liberate France. Though they had been marginalized within official military organizations, women were essential to the French Resistance.
During World War II, many women felt a need to serve and protect their country against Nazi invasion and occupation. Some joined resistance organizations, where they secured clothes, nursed the sick and wounded, ran documents and information, and engaged in a range of sabotage activities. According to historian Margaret Rossiter, one of the key roles women in the Resistance played was feeding and sheltering Allies stuck behind enemy lines.1 Women were generally overlooked by the invading army, which allowed them to do things without arousing German suspicion.
Germaine Tillion joined the French Resistance after meeting Paul Hauet, a retired French colonel.2 The two of them took over running the National Union of Colonial Fighters (UNCC), a front for helping with resistance efforts in Paris. Tillion helped Jewish families escape by forging ID papers for them. Her most notable assistance happened when she was sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women just north of Berlin. There she deciphered the criminal concentration camp system and its military hierarchy, passing this information to the outside. After the war, Tillion investigated the atrocities of WWII, with a focus on Nazi war crimes and Soviet Gulags. Her experiences as a Resistance fighter made her passionate about resisting evil and cruelty throughout her life. She spoke out against the French role in letting the Algerian population fall into poverty, protested the torture of Algerian prisoners, and advocated for the emancipation of women in the Mediterranean.
Early in the Vichy occupation of France, Genevieve Soulie took up the responsibility of finding safe lodging for downed Allied soldiers and pilots. As a leader of the Paris section of the Burgundy resistance network, she helped 136 Allied aviators escape from France. In an interview in 1976, Genevieve said, “In our network [Burgundy escape line] there were Catholics, atheists, Protestants, Jews, and people of different political parties and social classes. Our view was that we were still at war against the enemy occupying our country, and that was the important thing.”3
Before the war, Lucie Aubrac (née Bernard) was a history teacher. She first learned about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party when she visited Germany during the 1936 Olympics. During and after Lucie’s visit to Germany, she came to realize the true intentions of the Nazi party. She joined the French Resistance in 1940. Aubrac and her husband formed the resistant group La Derniere Colonne (Liberation-sud). The group carried out sabotage attacks at train stations that affected German supply lines. Following a hiatus to keep the group from exposure, Lucie and her group started an underground newspaper called the Liberation. In 1943, the Gestapo arrested her husband. Lucie was pregnant with her second child at the time. She told the authorities that they were unmarried, but that her husband was the father of her child. She convinced the Gestapo to honor a French law permitting a man to be married right before his execution to ensure the legitimacy of the child being left behind. With the help of armed resistance fighters, Aubrac broke her husband out while the Gestapo was transporting him back to prison after the “wedding.” The couple went into hiding until they could catch a plane to London. After the war, Aubrac continued to teach history and became the first woman to sit in a French parliamentary assembly.4
Tillion, Soilie, and Aubrac are just three of the thousands of women involved in the French Resistance. They led information-gathering and communication efforts, gathered supplies for the resistance effort, and took part in direct action. The need for resistance did not stop with the Allied defeat of the Germans. The women of the Resistance went on to fight for the next generation, to stand up for those who were oppressed by their countrymen, and to lead postwar France and the world.
- Margaret L. Rossiter, Women in the Resistance (New York: Praeger Publications, 1985), 23. Return to text.
- Belkacem Recham, Algerian Muslims in the French Army, 1919-1945 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996), 207-27. Return to text.
- Genevieve Soulié was interviewed about her experiences in the French Resistance in October 1976. Return to text.
- Lucie Aubrac, Outwitting the Gestapo (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994). Return to text.