Last week my non-fiction choice was Sisters In The Resistance by Margaret Collins Weitz. It’s the true story of the French women who fought in the Resistance against the German occupiers. I’ve heard many stories about the French Resistance but this was the first really comprehensive view of women’s role in it. And let me tell you something, these women weren’t slacking when it came to taking on the Germans clandestinely. Their participation was central to the Resistance despite their place as second class citizens in French culture. In fact, women of the time had the same legal status as criminals, the mentally insane, and minors. Nice, France. Oh, but that’s not all. Women in France didn’t even have the right to vote until after the war. But despite this, French women choose to fight, choose to rebel against the German occupation of France, and they did this quite successfully. These women were masterful writers, secret-keepers, and spies. They did everything asked of them and more. They risked their lives daily and often. So little is known about them because of several reasons, the first being the secretive nature of the Resistance, the second being the rampant gender discrimination of the time. Very few women have been honored by France as pivotal Resistance fighters- even today. The women who survived the war simply went back to their previous lives and very rarely, if ever, discussed their role in the Resistance. These women were absolutely stunning examples of strength, the type of strength you rarely see these days.
This book was also a very balanced view of the Resistance in general. I’m used to hearing about the glory of the Resistance in it’s fight against the oppression of the Germans. Sure, that’s true. But it’s also true that their was rampant anti-semitism in the Resistance and that very few groups made any effort whatsoever to save French Jews from deportation and concentration camps. We know about the complicit, nay even enthusiastic, participation of the Vichy government in the genocide of millions of Jews, but the truth is, the French in general, even in the Resistance, made very little effort to save any Jews.
Nt only was anti-semitism prevalent in the Resistance but sexism was as well. Despite their major role, no women held positions of power in the Resistance. Very few women were allowed to participate in military maneuvers and even when they showed military prowess they were excluded. Such was the story of the female explosives expert who parachuted into France and was greeted with “Oh. But she’s a baby.” Needless to say, no matter their skill, women were not valued by many in the Resistance, despite how vital they were in it’s successes.
The up-side of the sexism of the time was that the occupying Germans also under-valued women in the Resistance. They frequently let women “take their time” before arresting them so they would “look their best”, this allowed women Resistance fighters the time to destroy countless documents and even in some instances to escape completely. Women would also use their fashion sense and good-looks to distract German soldiers and gestapo while Resistance maneuvers were taking place. Not that this was the women’s favorite part to play in the Resistance but it was an effective one considering the way women were viewed at the time.
This book was powerful, emotional, and illuminating. It was the first view I’ve ever had of women in the Resistance and I was in awe of how brilliant these women were and how large their role in the Resistance was. Very highly recommended. Although, I kept thinking of the song “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” the whole time.
If it’s your first time here on a Monday, A Year In Books is my New Year’s Resolution to read a new book every week. So far, so good people. I’m going actually keep my resolution this year!