Women in the Crucible of War and Resistance: What Those Who Fought Can Teach Us About the Rebirth of Feminism and Civic Participation

Lisa Greenwald

It’s been a number of months since I completed “What War and Resistance Can Do: The Rebirth of Feminism in France, 1945-1970,” published in this (June 2023) edition of The Journal of Women’s History, but I find myself returning again and again to its themes: the willingness of just a few to take action in the face of terror and terrorism; the willingness to commit oneself when the risks are too terrible to contemplate.

Such was the situation for French women during Nazi occupation (May 1940 to December 1944) and for Algerian women during their war of independence (November 1954 to March 1962). At present, I’m reading the unpublished privately owned diary of a French bourgeois provincial woman (Léone D., from Bordeaux) who was 19 when, in May 1940, the Nazis smashed through the Maginot line and the Ardennes Forest into France. In the weeks prior, she was filled with an amorphous dread—about the Nazi invasion of Europe, the fate of her uncles off at the front, and what all this meant for France. At the same time, she was preoccupied by the end of her studies at lycée, what she would do with the rest of her life, and the state of her soul, a mood heightened by the local priest who seemed to turn up very frequently at the family dinner table.

“Weariness, immense weariness. And then what? Is this how the rear should react? The rear. I’m enraged to be part of this lukewarm crowd that seeks to strike the right balance between the ‘seriousness’ demanded by the war and the pleasures…”

A deeply religious young woman who wanted very much to be ‘good’ and to be worthy of God’s love was thrilled when the priest gave a lecture on Grace at the local university, and she was allowed to attend. Later, she admitted to him that she would love to study philosophy, whereby he said: “Oh really? I’m grateful that you can’t get a degree in philosophy. It’s just too dangerous for young women…” she ruefully recounted in her diary.

“I end by feeling terribly useless. Am I too demanding, am I outside of life? In any case, my throat tightens more quickly, and I have the taste of weariness and sadness in my mouth.”

Léone suffered from both personal paralysis and repression that only the most independent women of the French bourgeoisie at the time were able to resist. She struggled to discover her life’s meaning in a world where her agency was so limited, and thus when the war came, she believed herself powerless to meet the challenges faced by the Nazi invasion. Throughout France, women suffered the same anxiety, and yet among them there were some who nevertheless took action, risking their and their families’ lives.

Likewise, for Algerian women, it was much easier to passively accept the French occupation of their country in the 1950s. Yet thousands fought for independence, knowing full well the potential suffering and death that awaited them if captured. French women had choices too in that conflict. Many were willing to simply read about what was being done in their name by the French military as they went about their daily concerns and tried, like Léone decades before, to figure out the meaning of their own lives. But some took to the streets and wrote urgent letters to their representatives. Some passed messages and weapons and were arrested and jailed.

When I’m not writing about French feminism, I work as a public-school teacher in New York City. I have been struck in recent years by the political apathy of many of my high school students, by their lack of knowledge of contemporary events, and by their feeling of helplessness towards the great issues of the day: gun violence, climate change, political polarization. They seem to see themselves as outsiders, buffeted by forces beyond their control, not as agents capable of creating change. While my students attend one of the most elite public schools in the country, almost half are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and many are first-generation Americans, constrained within class and culture. Many are like Léone who felt unable to act outside of the expectations of her social class and gender.

Thus, I spend a lot of time thinking about agency. What can I do as a teacher to grow it in my students so that they view themselves as actors in the present who will one day be written into the annals of history? What can I do personally to model this kind of engagement in the commonweal?

This year, my tenth graders completed a project on “Imagination, Empathy, and Action” responding to Holocaust testimony from the Yale Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony collection, interviewing an older person who overcame personal challenges, and creating a project of public education, reparation, or restitution. Many wrote about how important it was for them to hear about the challenges and triumphs of the people they interviewed and enjoyed contributing to the community through their service projects.

Instructionally, I’m still figuring out how I can cultivate a greater sense of agency and more civic engagement in my students. The resisters, smugglers, and feminists highlighted in my article were women who lived in extraordinary times and who fought and risked death, and believed their sacrifices were worth it. Today we live in less extraordinary times, but the core question of who is willing to stand up and engage with the issues of the day remains as important. I believe that contemplating these and other women’s actions cultivates our empathy and imagination and helps us take our own steps to becoming more engaged citizens.


To delve more into the lives and archives of French women and feminists, I highly recommend these two websites: Projet:Les sans pagEs/La Contemporaine/Deuxième vague féministe – Wikipédia (wikipedia.org) which lists recent articles on second wave feminism and the Archives du Féminisme (archivesdufeminisme.fr) which highlights recent scholarship as well as archival material acquired by the Feminist Archives and available for research.