Writing War in the Feminine: De Beauvoir and Duras

By Green, Mary Jean | Journal of European Studies, March-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Writing War in the Feminine: De Beauvoir and Duras


Green, Mary Jean, Journal of European Studies


Women's experience of war has left few traces in the canon of twentieth-century French literature; women's voices have long been characterized by their silence. World War I, the Great War, gave rise to a prodigious quantity of autobiographical and fictional writing, little of it by women. In his exhaustive study of the French war novel from 1919 to 1939, Maurice Rieuneau mentions -- appropriately, in a footnote -- only one war novel written by a women.[1] But this is understandable, because the experience of World War I, as that experience has institutionalized itself in the literary as well as the societal narrative, is the experience of the front lines, of the muddy trenches -- an experience available only to men. The suffering of women during this war was, as Karin Hausen has demonstrated in the case of German war widows, written out of the social narrative: 'the discourse of public commemoration could not simultaneously maintain the mythos of male heroism and also acknowledge women's real, if mundane, hardships. Instead, the widows were silenced, their testimony locked away in bureaucratic files.'[2] World War 11, however, was an entirely different phenomenon for French women. Women fleeing before the German invasion were subject to aerial attack, and later they were deported to German concentration camps along with men. Of greater significance for their future political rights, women were not excluded from warfare itself, except for the brief moment in 1939 when men went off to the front. Women participated in the Resistance in large numbers, even assuming combat roles. Writing on the 'Sociologie de la Resistance', Jacqueline Sainclivier underlines the significance of this fact: 'les femmes deviennent partie prenante a part egale dans une guerre, pour la premiere fois sans doute de maniere aussi importante.'[3] Women's participation in the Resistance was considerable, even in terms of traditional statistics. A colloquium on 'Les Femmes dans la Resistance' noted that women constituted 7.5% of the members of the Comites departementaux de liberation,[4] and their actual participation in the Resistance as a whole, though often in supporting roles that did not enter into the official figures, was far more extensive.

Yet the participation of women in what was to be consecrated as the central French experience of this war soon faded from historical memory, a process which seems directly related to questions of gender: as Margaret and Patrice Higonnet point out, 'French women in the Resistance, because German soldiers read them as women, often escaped detection when men could not. Indeed, the contribution of those women was, in the post-war period when awards were being made, unreadable for French politicians as well.'[5] The unreadability of women in the Resistance has become a matter of concern for women's historians:[6] some have suggested that it may be related to the strong reassertion of traditional gender roles immediately after the war.[7] Historian Dominique Veillon muses, 'Tout s'est passe comme si les femmes, sorties de la vocation qui leur etait traditionnellement assignee, il convenait qu'elles rentrassent dans le rang le plus vite possible.'[8] Not only did women fail to validate their wartime service by coming forward to claim official recognition as 'Combattants Volontaires de la Resistance', they also left the writing of Resistance history in the hands of their male colleagues. From her examination of published Resistance memoirs, Veillon concludes: 'La Liberation venue, elles se sont refugiees dans le silence et l'anonymat tandis qu'a leurs cotes des compagnons de lutte entreprenaient de se raconter pour expliquer leur action.'[9] While the masculine memoirs Veillon examines are, for the most part, published soon after the war, the memoirs of women begin to appear only in the late 1960s and 1970s. The memoirs of one of the most-publicized Resistance heroines, Lucie Aubrac, were published only in 1984,[10] and then, as she tells us, only because they might contribute to the projected trial of Klaus Barbie (in this context, it begins to appear less strange that the wartime texts of former Resistance participant Marguerite Duras were published only in 1985). …

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