Gender, Sources and Silences in the History of the French Resistance

Raphaële Balu and Laure Humbert are working with Géraud Letang (Service Historique de la Défense, Paris) on their papers for the annual conference of the Society for the Study of French History. The aim of this collaborative panel is to place some of the early findings of our research project within the historiography of the Resistance, situate it in the growing literature on gender, medicine and wartime intimacies, and to gain feedback on our findings.

The Crusader, Vol. 1, No.8, 22 June 1942. Material from the British Library

One of the starting points of our panel is to further the dialogue between historians of the French Resistance and four different strands of historiography: (i) the literature on colonial intimacies, which has transformed our knowledge of the colonial body and repertoires of colonial governance, especially but not only,  in colonial contexts (ii) gender and queer histories of wartime medicine (particularly of the First World War) which have demonstrated that medical spaces were sites of bodily and intimate desires, where ideas about gender, race, pain and the body were contested (iii) studies of men, masculinities and male culture in wartime, which have paid attention to the ways in which non-combatant men had their manliness called into question and the ways in which they tried to define and defend their contribution to the war effort (iv) studies of women at war which are not only showing how war – and Resistance – reproduced traditional gender assignments, but also what happened to those who transgressed such injunctions, especially women who took arms. 

All together, these historiographies opened up a range of important research questions to historians of the French Resistance, which are particularly relevant for our different research projects: How far were idealised notions of femininity and masculinity complicated and compromised by the daily experiences of misery, boredom, guerrilla warfare, wounds and death? How did these experiences impact on Resistant members’ sense of masculine and feminine selves? In what ways did the elites of the Resistance reinforce certain gender norms, while temporarily tolerating a wide range of transgressions? What are the main silences and taboos in the written archives of the French Resistance and what do they reveal about the movement? How far can historians ‘recover’ transgressive behaviours, particularly when collective memories of the Resistance are dominated by heroic narratives?

Our panel builds on a growing body of recent work on masculinities and femininities in the Resistance. While once marginalised by historians, the issue of gender is increasingly seen as central to our understanding of the history and collective memory of both the internal and external Resistance (Juliette Pattinson, Julie Le Gac, Claire Miot, Eric Jennings, Charlotte Faucher, Valerie Deacon, Ludivine Broch, Sebastien Albertelli, Guillaume Piketty, Hanna Diamond, Emily Hooks among others). Collectively, these works have shed new lights into the ‘traditional’ division of labour within the Resistance and gendered representations of resisters in the cultural memory of the Resistance. Our aim is to extend this field of scholarship by examining three case studies, which offer new insights into the tensions between normative masculinities and femininities and individual behaviours. 

In her paper, entitled ‘Les femmes dans les maquis français de la Seconde Guerre mondiale : une transgression de genre’, Raphaele focuses on how a minority of women stretched the boundaries of acceptable gender roles by joining the Maquis and taking arms. Ultimately, though, she argues that these women were not able to challenge the enduring power imbalance that existed between men and women in the Maquis. In his paper, ‘Performing ‘heroic’ virility and maintaining colonial order: Free French masculinities in Chad (1940-1943)’, Géraud explores what happens to the notion of the ‘virile’ resister when experiences of poverty, boredom and inaction are brought to the fore. He looks at how Free French volunteers performed a ‘heroic virility’ in Chad, the northern territory of French Equatorial Africa. He argues that performing ‘heroic’ virility and maintaining colonial order was all the more difficult since the Free French lacked funds and were locked in inaction and boredom. In her paper, ‘Gender, wounds and intimacy in the international Hadfield-Spears Hospital, 1941-1945’, Laure examines how different social expectations of masculinity and femininity co-existed and conflicted within the International Hadfield Spears hospital. She interrogates how far care-giving in extreme environment and ‘under fire’ supported gendered narratives of comradeship and revisits the cult of ‘heroic bravery’ in war medicine. She demonstrates how various cultural norms of ‘medical stoicism’ under fire shaped medics’ emotional experiences and what it was possible to feel or admit to feel when confronted with danger and death.

Various issues and themes emerged from our preparative discussion for the panel. One concerns the limited source material that we have at our disposal and how to read and interpret it. In particular, Géraud spoke about his work on the pay of Free French, the amount of which varied according to their rank and family situations. Raphaële reflected on the relative invisibility of women in the maquis, whose auxiliary functions within the Resistance are far less documented than men’s actions. Another challenge relates to the taboos around gendered violence and body-care intimacies. For instance, Hadfield-Spears nurses were often silent about body care and the possible sexual undertones in their close encounters with male combatant patients. A final issue is that of the colonial gaze in the archives. This is a particular important issue for Géraud and his work on masculinities in Tchad. It is also a concern for Laure. While she has many snapshots of what daily work in the Hadfield Spears hospital looked, felt and smelt like for very different European members, she can only get glimpses of the ways in which colonial orderlies were confronted with systemic racism, facing both codified structures of racial exclusion and de facto practices.

In sum, our panel (and future research) aims at better understanding how far beliefs about European and French manliness, femininity, racial membership and sexual morality were affected by the experiences of war, exile, guerrilla warfare and wounds. We are also hoping to explore new themes in the history of the Resistance; such as physical and psychological wounds, solidarity and comradeship between fighters and medical staffs, technical and ethical issues related to war medicine. 

“Nicole” (Simone Segouin) a French Partisan Who Captured 25 Nazis in the Chartres Area, in Addition to Liquidating Others, Poses with the Automatic Rifle with Which She is Most Proficient, August, 1944. Source: National Archives and Record Administration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s