In homage to the season, I’ve been reading about women in the French Resistance in WW2 (Sisters in the Resistance by Margaret Weitz). I hadn’t realised what a socially reactionary regime Vichy France was – urging women to stay at home and have strong healthy babies (to restore the 1.5m men lost in WW1). Trousers (or rather ‘slacks’ ) were not to be worn, and women were to have at least four pregnancies to ensure ‘normal health’. There is evidence that all this was not unacceptable to the traditional French society of the mid-20th century.
So it makes it all the more remarkable that women were prepared to break the mould and get involved in the Resistance, leaving behind family and even children when they had to. Of course, they used traditional attitudes to their advantage – hiding documents under baby clothes and employing coquetry to beguile and deceive their enemy.
After the war, it seemed nothing had changed much. All that risk-taking, ingenuity, capacity for organisation and independence that the ‘Sisters of the Resistance’ displayed during the war, in France and in the prisons and concentration camps they often ended up in, counted for little in a world that found security in renewed traditions – much like the 1950s in Britain. It was the Pill that made the difference to the position of women in France.
But there is also the inner change that war challenges us to. Lise Lesevre’s whole family was in the Resistance; she was captured in 1944 carrying mail for a group. After witnessing atrocities in Ravensbruck, she declared after the war, “They taught us to hate … I was obsessed with making those monsters pay. Shortly after leaving the camps, I told a confessor that I wished our torturers the terrible punishment they merited. I fully realised that saying this would prevent the priest from giving me absolution. After some hesitation, he decided to give me absolution after all. ‘The Good Lord will arrange it,’ he reasoned. Upon my return, I had to learn how not to hate – that atrocious sentiment that they taught us there – in spite of ourselves.”