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Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Paris’s women at war and the Housewives’ League

Paris’s women at war and the Housewives’ League | Podcast | History Extra

"Paris became a significantly feminised city... there were 2 million men who were prisoners of war, other men had gone to join De Gaulle and the Free French in London. There were a few men. If they were Jews they were hiding or perhaps in the Resistance but they weren't out on the streets in the day. So what you saw in Paris was women. And it was women who had to interact with the Germans...

Nobody who writes about this period in history is ever going to find people who collaborated to interview... 'Oh I thought the Germans were wonderful so I thought the Germans were going to win the war so I decided I would throw my lot in with them'. So I've obviously had to rely on diaries and letters, because a lot of people did collaborate... you have to break down the word collaborate. Now Petain was the first to use, Marshall Petain who ran the Vichy Regime was the first to use the word collaborate but collaborate means several different things and I've tried at every stage to show the light and the dark. Where I look for example at the Comedie Francaise, the French National Theatre. I show a woman who resigned on the first day because she couldn't bear to work in a theatre where Jews were not allowed to perform and Jewish plays were not acted and Beatrice Bretty [sp?] who threw in her lot with George Mondell and that's an amazing story...

At the same time, there were actors at the Comedie Francaise who continued acting and I don't think it's for me to judge them as collaborating. They did what they needed to do because that was their job. And if you take somebody like, for example, Marie Marquet, who after the war had to face charges of collaborating, her son was in the Resistance and she used the German contacts she had to try and persuade him not to commit a particularly dangerous action. She wanted to get him out of the Resistance because she wanted him to have a safe life. I don't think it's for me to judge her as a collaborator merely because she tried to rescue her son. And he was ultimately killed.

I think at every stage, you can find some sort of justification but there are more extreme cases. At the Opera, for example, there's Germane Luber [sp?]. She also, she was a Wagnerian soloist. You could say she collaborated because she performed with, to a specifically German audience so that was a more extreme case. What else could she have done? Her voice was coming to its peak, the Germans adored Wagner, the Germans believed that Opera was their sphere anyway. It's very difficult to imagine how she would have earnt a living if she had not performed on stage. Perhaps she might not have German salons, but you know, if you understand that singing Wagner was what she knew how to do, it's very hard to imagine her just deciding: I'm not going to sing.

Where after the war people tried to judge women who'd collaborated, this was a very gendered response and I think this is where I take issue with those who were judged collaborators, young girls who may have had a romantic attachment with a German soldier were immediately hauled in front of village squares and had their heads shaved or worse, they were made to parade naked around town. Maybe they even had a Swastika painted on their forehead. Now there were a lot of romantic entanglements because by some accounts there were between 70 and 100,000 Franco-German babies born.

That's a lot of collaboration or collaboration horizontale as it was called, but it's very different for the men. The men were often committing industrial collaboration. You know, there could be men who ran building companies. I know of a family, a Jewish family where they made barbed wire. And the granddaughter of that family says: I'm convinced my grandparents survived because in some way they collaborated. But if you make barbed wire and the Germans want barbed wire and that's your safety and you survive, hard to imagine what else you might do.

Of course, there are choices and some people made them. But it's just not such a clear-cut area and particularly for women, women who were exposed to the Germans and women who felt: if I sleep with a German, because sexual collaboration was rife at many levels, and sometimes resisters would sleep with the enemy in order to get a false document to be released, and I've got one story of an English nanny who slept with a policeman in order to have a letter posted to her parents to tell them that she was alive and she recognised that this was a necessary tradeoff.

So certainly sexual collaboration comes into it, but there's no question that the women paid an unequal price at the end of the war for collaboration horizontale, when men who were involved in the black market, men who were art dealers, men who were trading whatever commodity they could, did not always face the same punishments. They certainly had a trial whereas many of the women were judged guilty without even a trial...

[On Housewives] 'They were against the welfare state... things like school milk. I mean nowadays we'd think those are fabulous things'

'They were against the state because they saw the state, through the welfare state, trying to replace the role of the wife and mother. It was her job to look after the husband and the children and here was state saying: we can do this and there was a huge resistance to the idea that anybody could perform that function better than the mother. And that... explains why they were opposed to the distribution of milk in schools because it was parents' duty, particularly the mothers' duty to provide milk for the children and this was the state saying: no, we're taking over one of your roles and I think they saw, as I say, an immensely powerful time to be a housewife and they saw that power being chipped away. And I think it was largely a power struggle with this idea that anybody could replace the mother'...

'What we often hear is the sort of the feminist side of things, which is the housewife simply got absorbed into the labour market. Certainly the number of women participating in the workforce rose very dramatically from the 70s onwards. But what interested me... was to look at that period from the other perspective, from the perspective of the women who did lose out. The women who did want to be housewives and wanted to stay that way. Well, they fared very badly, were deeply resentful of what was going on'"
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