Today is International Women’s Day, and while I’m finding it hard to use the word ‘celebrate’ these days, I did want to mark the occasion. And since I keep thinking about the Ukrainian grandmothers currently making Molotov cocktails to defend their land against one of the biggest armies in the world, I want to take a moment to remember another group of resistance fighters. The men and women of the French Resistance.
Stories of the French Resistance abound in France. Whenever people talk about the heroes of the Resistance, names like Jean Moulin, Daniel Cordier, and Henri Rol-Tanguy are said with reverence. But the French Resistance was not just men. It is estimated that up to 20% of resistance fighters were women. And since they were less suspect than men, women were often given some of the most dangerous jobs. So in honour of International Women’s Day, I want to introduce you to some of the incredible women of the French Resistance.
Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz
Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz joined the French Resistance in 1940. She spent the next three years working for the underground movement, before being arrested in 1943 and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Gaulle-Anthonioz was freed in 1945, and went on to file lawsuits against several Nazi war criminals. She later became the president of the ADIR, testified in the trial of Klaus Barbie, and spent over a decade campaigning for laws against poverty in France. In 2015, she was symbolically interred at the Pantheon in honour of her life’s work and legacy.
Marie-Madeleine Fourcade became the leader of the Alliance network of spies and agents after its former leader, Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, was arrested and imprisoned. Fourcade managed an entire network of agents across France for the rest of the war. She also either evaded capture or escaped from the Nazis countless times, and she worked directly with the British in London. At one point, she spent months on the run, moving from city to city, during which time she gave birth to her third child. That’s right. Fourcade managed to run a resistance network and stay one step ahead of the Nazis, all while pregnant. How this woman’s life has not yet been made into a movie is beyond me.
Simone Segouin is perhaps most famous for the many photographs taken of her by Robert Capa while fighting against the Nazis. She joined the French Resistance when she was just a teenager, and went on to kill and capture dozens of German soldiers. Segouin took part in both the liberation of Chartres and Paris, and was only 19 years old when the war ended in 1945. She is still alive today, and she lives in Courville-sur-Eure where a road is named after her.
Rose Valland was an art historian who worked at the Jeu de Paume Museum during the occupation of Paris. The museum became a central processing centre for thousands of artworks that were stolen by the Nazis during the war, and Valland oversaw it all. She also spoke German, a fact she hid from the Nazis, and she secretly kept records of the art that passed through the museum and where it all was going. As a direct result of her work, thousands of pieces of art were saved, located, and returned to their rightful owners after the war. She was the inspiration for Cate Blanchett’s character in the film The Monuments Men, and today, Valland is one of the most decorated women in France’s history.
Josephine Baker was an American entertainer and civil rights activist who spent most of her life in France. She was also a decorated agent in the French Resistance, using her celebrity and fame to gain access to high level social events and gatherings. She was able to easily travel internationally during the war, and used these opportunities to ferry information in and out of the country. Messages were written on her sheet music in invisible ink or hidden in her underwear. In 2021, Josephine Baker became the first Black woman to be interred in the Pantheon in Paris in recognition of her service to France.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.