Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Writing a Scholarly Occupation: Student Women Diarists (1940-1944)

Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Writing a Scholarly Occupation: Student Women Diarists (1940-1944)

Article excerpt

Une fille ça reste au foyer, oui peut-etre, mais pas quand elle a gagné sa croute seule pendant 3 ans, qu'elle n'a pas eu de maître que la nécessité (Madeleine Blaess, 15 August 1943).

This article examines the lives of four women students in occupied Paris through the diaries each of them wrote during the period. Two of the diaries (Simone Triandafil and Hélene Berr) were published posthumously in 1947 and 2008. Genevieve Gennari published her diary in 1961. Madeleine Blaess's diary is shortly to be published in English translation and the manuscript is held in the Special Collections archive of the library at the University of Sheffield, in the UK. The article examines the premise that far from being passive victims of a chauvinistic rolling back of the gains of interwar feminism these young women persevered and prevailed through hardship to protect and pursue their personal and pedagogical ambitions. It seeks to place the story of women students within a new and evolving history of women during the Occupation which argues that the women who struggled through difficult circumstances still acted, by and large, in line with their own personal and pragmatic priorities. The article debunks assumptions that Vichy's hostility to women's education inhibited their pedagogical ambitions and moves on to address the content of each diary in support of the premise that students, like many women, lived their lives in accordance with the desires and greater expectations of a generation raised and educated through the heyday of first wave feminism.

On 20 October 1940, the Rector of the Sorbonne and the Deans of its five faculties delivered their speeches at the Conseil de ľUniversité de Paris, the traditional "séance de la rentrée" held in the amphithéátre Louis Liard at the Sorbonne (Annales, 1940, 197). Incongruous amidst the homilies to the Maréchal was the defiant speech delivered by Great War veteran Joseph Vendryes (1875-1960), the Dean of the Arts Faculty. Students should look to the truth and beauty of the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers for the arms to fight for the survival of France and its Republican ideals, he boldly declared. They should strive to oppose the philistinism of totalitarianism by seeking out and loving these truths so as to resist the "machinisme, qui tend â asservir tous les etres en leur imposant sa loi brutale et aveugle" (Annales, 1940, 209-212). This passionate speech, a foretaste of Vendryes's testy attitude to the authorities which would lead to his arrest on several occasions, was addressed primarily to women. By the rentrée of October 1940, 2000 students had registered in the Arts Faculty at the Sorbonne. Registrations were fewer than half of the 1939 figure and women, as had also been the case the previous year, significantly outnumbered men. Vendryes directly invoked these women in his speech. It would be their diligence, passion and industry which would ensure the survival of both the country and the Sorbonne: "Les étudiants, qui sont surtout des étudiantes, se pressent en grand nombre dans les salles de cours [...] Le spectacle de la faculté, en ce début d'hiver 1940, est des plus réconfortants. Il témoigne que la jeunesse française [.] n'a rien perdu de son ardeur au travail et manifeste par son attitude sa volonté de contribuer pour sa part au relevement de notre pays" (Vendryes, 1940, 212).

Vendryes's support of women students reflected the generally positive attitude of the Sorbonne which, since the end of the First World War, had been actively recruiting women scholars from both France and abroad to replace a generation of men killed in the conflict (Hanna, 1999, 104-10). However, despite the vitality of the female student community during the Occupation (an ongoing vitality according to registration statistics), most historians writing on women and education during the period doggedly stick to a gloomy victim-narrative of women intimidated, undermined and forced from education by a wave of reactionary legislation and attitudes. …

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