For the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and re-reading old issues of the Chicago Tribune, between 1919 and the end of the Second World War in pursuit of the subject of my current book. And as those of you who been with me on this journey know, in doing so I’ve stumbled across stories that don’t belong in the book but are too good not to share. (I’m looking at you, Fiume.)
Most recently I found a small article—a total of four sentences—that had more to do with my last book, Women Warriors, than with my current book.
One thing I discovered as I worked on that book is that periods of national crisis open up spaces in which women are able to play roles that society otherwise might not have allowed them to play. The Second World War offered unprecedented opportunities for women to enlist in the armed services. Great Britain, the United States and Germany all had women in uniform providing support services to their forces. Several hundred thousand women actively fought in the Soviet Union’s army as snipers, machine, gunners, tank crews, and antiaircraft personnel, not to mention as bombers, fighter pilots and navigators. (Who says women don’t go to war?)
But what about France, you ask?
According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, on May 22, 1940, the French premier, Paul Reynaud, announced that French women between the ages of 21 nd 55 could now enlist as female auxiliaries of the armed forces—the French equivalent of WACs, WAVEs, WRENs and the like. Even if women swarmed the enlistment offices the next day,* it was too late for them to make a difference. German troops had crossed the border into the Ardennes on May 12 and were fighting their way toward Paris, which they occupied on June 14.
Personally, I like to think that many of the women who would have donned neat uniforms and “freed up a man to fight” instead became members of the Resistance.**
*Which they might well have done. They certainly hurried to sign up as Red Cross volunteers in the weeks after France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.
**If you’re interested in one woman’s involvement in the French resistance, I recommend The General’s Niece: The Little-Known DeGaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France by Paige Bowers.
Come back on Monday for 3 Questions and an Answer with journalist and biographer Sara Fitzgerald who’s been researching untold stories of women since 1973.