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Women in Wartime

Madeleine Blaess (1918–2003) was born in France and moved to York in England with her parents when she was an infant. She was raised in York and educated at the Bar Convent in the town before going to the University of Leeds to study French.

She graduated with a first class honours degree in French in July 1939 and was awarded a grant to go to the Sorbonne University in Paris to begin doctoral studies in the field of medieval French. However, in September 1939 after Germany had invaded Poland Britain and France declared war on Germany. Madeleine hesitated before taking up the offer of her university place but after having received reassurance about her safety, set off for Paris from Folkestone at the end of October 1939. Until May 1940, Madeleine was able to live a relatively normal life, studying for her doctorate and socialising with fellow students she had met at her lodgings and at the Sorbonne. However, when the German army overran Belgium in May 1940, her life in Paris began to change. Many of her friends, fearful of impending conflict, left for the ports and from there to Britain as the streets of Paris were flooded with Belgian refugees fleeing the fighting. Madeleine decided that she too should leave to return to Britain, if only for the summer to see her parents, and began to make preparations to do so. She bought a train and boat ticket and organised the necessary visas. Unfortunately for Madeleine, the German advance was so rapid that it cut off her route to the port and she was stranded in Paris. She joined thousands of other civilians fleeing south and finally returned to Paris in July 1940.

Madeleine retuned to a capital city under German occupation. The French army had offered no resistance and the city was occupied on June 14th. On 22 June 1940, France surrendered and signed an armistice, the terms of which set out the terms of an occupation which would require the support of a newly formed French government. The first formal collaboration in Europe between a government of an occupied state and the Nazis had begun.

Madeleine’s experience of the Occupation was, in the early years, unconcerned with military matters. Finding enough food to eat when there was so little due to severe rationing and poor distribution of what little there was preoccupied most Parisians. Only in the summer of 1943 did Madeleine begin to write more about the war and then only when it was clear that the war looked to be edging towards an Allied victory. When Madeleine wrote of war, it was the war she saw from her bedroom window on the 8th floor of the 320 rue St Jacques which she witnessed as bombing raids on the suburbs; pyrotechnic displays of anti-aircraft fire, tracer bullets, distant explosions and fiercely burning fires. By 1944, allied bombing raids on the Paris suburbs became much more frequent. After the D Day landings, refugees from Normandy brought with them gruesome stories of death and destruction dealt the civilian population from mostly allied bombing. Parisians were largely bystanders. Madeleine, however, had direct experience of being bombed.

Women in Wartime

The war changed lives. It changed the lives of men, of course, many of whom were conscripted to fight, were injured or died or, as was largely the case in France, were taken prisoner for the duration of the war. It also significantly changed the lives of young women who had been educated in the inter-war period in the more liberal political and social era which followed the first wave feminist movement which had been active with varying degrees of success across Europe from the first decade of the Twentieth Century. It changed women’s lives on a number of counts. In France, the Vichy government imposed a raft of regressive and revisionist laws aimed at restoring traditional roles of wife and mother for women. The law of __ was a particularly dramatic reversal of the achievements of women in the workplace, because it effectively sacked married women from all State funded employment, which, of course included school teaching. This legislation together with legislation banning contraception and abortion and laws making it much more difficult to obtain a divorce certainly imposed a clear moral pressure for women to maintain or revert to gender normative behaviour. The reality was that many women simply ignored it because they had to go to work and they had to take the lead in running and protecting the well-being of their homes and their families in the absence of men, millions of whom had been taken prisoner during the Battle of France in 1940 and deported to POW camps in Germany. The lives of many women were very harsh indeed. Food, clothing and material goods were severely rationed and women (usually women) had to queue for hours to obtain it, there was very little solid fuel or electricity for heating and cooking and washing, the cost of living was very high, medical supplies and care were also in short supply.

Madeleine, like other women, struggled through the practical difficulties and material shortages of the war. She did not have dependents to care for, but she did have to support herself in a foreign country with no grant income and only a very small network of friends and acquaintances through whom she could find work opportunities. In the diary it is clear that she sees her studies as her principal objective and protects her scholarly vocation through part-time work she manages to do alongside. Her doctoral thesis takes a back seat to a more pragmatic English degree she takes so that she can teach in French schools if the war drags on for years but she continues to research for it. In the diary, Madeleine begins to reflect on gender expectations in the summer of 1943, when, with the war looking as if it will shortly come to an end, she begins to contemplate a return home to her parents. What she writes gives an insight into the social pressure to conform to normative stereotypes still facing women in the 1940s. Unmarried and without a job and without her doctorate, she fears pressure to marry from her parents. She wants to marry but she does not want to give up her studies. To have qualifications, a career and a husband was, in the 1940s, not encouraged. Madeleine defiantly envisages having all three, a family and a house of her own in the countryside in a series of imaginings in prose and sketches of building plans. Throughout the diary, there are glimpses of Madeleine as a woman torn between social expectation and a more modern desire for a career and independence. Indeed, as she contemplates a return to York, she describes herself as much changed by the war. She has aged, of course. She has grown up. But she has also lived a life of fierce independence through years of severe hardship and danger and survived. She is not prepared to return to a life of dependence.

Extracts from the Diary

1st October 1940:
My dear Daddy and Mummy
I am writing this for you because I can no longer send you letters. What I am writing here is a replacement. The first of October, the date classes begin again, is a suitable date to start but I have been wanting to do this for a long time because it is a way to feel closer to you.
Here, I depend on no one other than myself. I am going to give lessons to groups of students at the Institute of English – I will tell you the full story later, and I hope to give private lessons. I have decided to start an English degree to have a French qualification in case the war lasts a long time. […]
This fight for existence will do me good. I’ve had it easy thanks to you both going without, Daddy and Mummy.; « let the weakest go to the wall », and if I take after you, I will survive. Anyway, don’t worry too much (if I was writing you a real letter I would never tell you such things) a little hunger and cold will not do me too much harm – even with money one can get cold and hungry in winter, – God help those who are suffering – and I can ask Vendryès for some university support if things get really tough. I know that this wouldn’t be much but it would be better than nothing, – and if I have nothing I will go to the soup kitchen with a milk bottle for a bit of coloured water and a stick of bread (probably 350 grams worth with a ration ticket). Anyway, we’re not there yet! And at least I have a place to stay – a nice place, with three rooms, a kitchen, entrance hall, bathroom, WC, all to share with Ruth Camp, a Canadian girl.
At the moment, I am trying to study hard, because I will have to ‘undergo’ an exam on the 18th of November. I have seven authors and the history of English literature to do. I’ll have to hurry up with it but at the same time, I don’t feel in much of a rush. Perhaps this is because classes haven’t started yet – they start, I think (at least the English lessons start), the 7th of October. In addition to those, I’ll have French, Latin – and later German (because I chose German for practical study). I am happy, so happy at the idea of starting my studies once again, but I will have to buy a lot of books which is a pain because there is not a lot of money around.
4th October 1940
The courses at the Sorbonne started on Tuesday. I didn’t go. I start on Monday. Yesterday, I registered at the Institut d’anglais, but the students who were there said that the teachers were not around because of the examinations. I saw Jacqueline there; she has decided to do an English degree. Afterwards, we went to Dilys’s, as we do every Thursday; Ruth and Mock were there; Mock is from the States; he came to France to study, he joined the ambulance corps and spent three months in Finland. Then, he had a beautiful beard and looked really rather fine. Now, he has shaved it off and does not look quite as fine. We spoke about getting hold of supplies, about babies, about courses about pretty much everything I think.
Saturday 8 November 1940
Office. Did washing and ironing. Tired and starving. Ate nearly a half pound of bread and butter. What extravagance – but I was so hungry. There are no vegetables other than a few turnips. Queue for carrots. What I brought back will have to last the week. I can’t see it. It’ll be OK if I don’t have to pay the Sorbonne straight away – otherwise I will have to borrow money. If only the idea occurred to Voisin to send me some or if I could get myself another lesson. If that happened no bartering would be necessary. Got a parcel from Mme Kerjean containing torn stockings and a warm cardigan. Wrote to Aunt, Mme Kerjean.
Wednesday 10 December 1940
Went to Miss Beach’s. Took out “Prince Charlie” (C. McKenzie) and Wells “The Invisible Man”. Welsh. Saw Dil. Had tea with Dil. Climbed over railings into the courtyard. Read.
Wednesday 31 December 1940
Washed. Rue R. Last day of the year. Sorted out old letters – so felt depressed. I hope that Hogmanay 1942 is spent at home with Dad and Mum!! What a New Year’s Eve with no heating, sat alone in the middle of old letters, old memories. Another year has passed by – ruined. Everything is ruined. So far from mummy. And what about my thesis?
Grand resolutions for 1942:
Wash the linen as I go along – don’t let it build up
At last 2 hours of violin practice per week
At least 5 hours thesis a week
Reply to letters straight away
Don’t read too much.
17th May 1942
Usually, I find it funny when I hear them say “Life is so hard, coming back after work, having to get food in, housework too. And Yo hasn’t enough to eat. She’s only got her rations!!! No meat. We save it up to take it on the Sunday” That’s not quite true. They’re forgetting to mention the monthly parcel and the Black Market. They are forgetting…but It doesn’t matter to them that I am on my own too in respect of finding food and that I too have only got my card. Oh well anyway. Yo pulled out of her exam. Too tired (I’ve got nothing to do though).
Wednesday 17 June 1942 (intellectual women)
Swotted. Knitted. 1.30 – 6 pm. Classical literature,
French composition. “To what extent is it true to say that the doctrine ‘art for art’s sake’ is already discernible in the ‘Bucoliques” by Chénier?” I think that I did alright but the plan was “wonky”. Writing awful. It was funny but I had a feeling that the subject would come up and so went in with a few ideas.
Hope I don’t fail it. Hélène Berr got a commendation for her diploma. She is the most intelligent girl I know. For the Latin unseen translation they were allowed dictionaries! And what next?? The translation itself?? I can’t believe it! I’ll set off tomorrow with my big fat dictionary under my arm.
Why is it that the only good souls around me are Quakers or Jews? Tired out after the exam. 9-11. Went for a walk.
Saturday 19 September 1942
Office. Wrote to Cyla. Warm sun. The cost of living is rocketing. It is terrifying. It costs 150 francs a week to buy the strict minimum. With a bit of fruit it costs 200 francs. It is just mad. We’ve been punished too. Apparently, they tried to blow up the Rex, the cinema for the German troops. Sanctions have been imposed. Eleven communists have been shot, there have been lots of deportations. All going out places have been shut today and tomorrow. Tomorrow the curfew is from three in the afternoon.
Thursday 31 December 1942 (objectives of woman in wartime..)
Got up late. Went to Dick’s but not there. Snowing. Did the grocery shopping. It takes so long and I spend so much money. Draught-proofed my room. Put on my straw weave shoes because the wooden soles don’t grip in the snow. Went to ‘The Winter Circus’ with the same tigers that injured Gina Manès – real beasts. Broke up with Jean. Went to see Dilys 11.45 pm for the New Year. Came back to mine at 12.15
Resolutions: 1/4 hour of physical exercise every day (not Sunday)
1 hour of mending and darning etc, housework everyday
10 hours thesis a week.
Intellectual, maturation as a woman, coping alone as a woman, purpose of diary.
Sunday 8 August 1943
9.55-10.35 am Air Raid sirens so mass at 11 am. Made a raisin tart. Very good it is but not having any yeast, it was a bit heavy. Started to read Le Journal de Marie Bashkirtseff. What an honesty about her. I blush when I compare my diary to hers – but there is a difference between the two in that Marie intended that her journal be read by the general public and I am just wanting mine to help me remember everything later on.
When I am writing, I have a constant fear that someone will open it – at customs, what do I know, which stops me putting down everything I think and feel. I hope that I will remember when I read things which appear to be insignificant. Memory is a powerful thing. I want it to follow the traces I am leaving, the vaguest hints that no one else will be able to read. But, at the moment, I don’t really feel an awful lot.
For sure, I am less ignorant than I was in August 1940 for example, but I feel that I am waiting. My life now is no more than a pause, a stop between two stations. The more I read about the period after the last war, the more I am shamefully pleased that things got back to normal so quickly. I can’t listen to the radio adverts urging me to serve. I feel ‘out of it’. I haven’t done anything to speed up the end of the war. I’ve only fought a battle to survive, to not die of hunger and mental exhaustion. I have not fought for others. I have had to fight alone for my life. Those who love me are too far away. I don’t even have the comfort of fighting shoulder to shoulder for something better against an enemy. For me, the enemy is hunger, cold, the lack of money.
If I were to die one evening no one would notice except my mother and father. The few words of regret uttered after news of my death would be swept from the memory in quarter of an hour, at most, by a social gathering or else hand-outs of pasta. Prisoners are able to say: ‘I fought. I was beaten but, all the same, I paid my dues to the country’. I can’t say any of that. Nothing. ‘What did you do during the war?’ ‘I tried not to die of hunger’ What a brave and heroic response. Enough now. I have, nevertheless, learnt how to live a bit and I have not built my life on the misery of others.
8th August 1943 (Nightmare about not completing PhD)
I fell asleep and had an awful dream. I hadn’t finished my studies and father didn’t want to lend me the money to finish my degree and to do my thesis. Mum was weeping and I went to see about financial support from the government and was promised a grant of £40 a year on condition that I lived at the Franco- British College. This only covered the rent and I said that I would have to give language lessons but that would mean that I could not finish in a year. It really upsets me to have a thesis which is barely started and these classical literature studies which are like a slow-acting and painful poison. I flinch from them just as I would in front of a pit I have to jump into. At the same time, it is just hard, boring graft. I need to get down to it.
Sunday 15 August 1943 – Gender
Mass. Knitted. Will I have enough wool? Broke a needle. Listened to the news on P.S. “An Average Father speaks of his Average Son”. He is frightened about what will happen after the war when his son comes back. Who wouldn’t be worried about that? I am terrified about what the post-war will hold for me. With all my heart I want the war to be over but then what? Where will I live? What will I do? What will become of me? Where will I be able to live? Perhaps I will be able to find some work at home? Perhaps these questions will find answers more easily than I think. Anyway, I think that I have shown by not dying during this stagnant Occupation that with determination one can always find a way through. Sure enough, these are big questions which may not be resolved by a marriage and they worry me from time to time. But the really big problem, and one that really sends chills down my spine, is how I relate to my parents. There it is. I have said it now. I am sure that I could grab the nettle; that in their hearts they hope that nothing has changed and that life will just take up where it left off in the cosy little threesome – foursome with the dog. But, well, everything has changed. I adore my parents, even more than before perhaps, in that the separation from them has enabled me to be able to see just how good they are. I have been able to compare them to other parents – what a huge difference – I am so lucky to have parents who are just about perfect – but, but, they love me too much. I am their sole reason for living – and…and… Why didn’t I have brothers and sisters – Oh, I know that they did want some. Nature didn’t want it – but what a burden it is to be an only child. When I come back they will think that everything will be as it was before – but no it won’t be. I have changed. I have lived for four years on my own. I am no longer a child. I even think that I have gone straight from childhood to adulthood and I miss the adolescence that I never had. I have made some amazing discoveries – that everyone keeps the same mentality even if the body changes – that faced with authority, whatever that authority is, everyone grovels and follows and lots more besides – I have been too close to misery and to death to be how I was before and I do not share the same opinions as my parents. And what about my freedom?? Of course, they wouldn’t complain. They would say ‘Darling, just do as you see fit. It is your life not ours, ours is finished’ But their eyes, their eyes full of sadness – I’d never be able to cope with that. It is their life or mine. Why should I have this dilemma? A girl, a girl stays at home – well, yes, perhaps but not when she has had to earn her crust all alone for three years dictated to by necessity and with only herself to keep her going. I hope that I will return with a better understanding of my parents’ love for me and forgive the wrongs they have done. Daddy – I misunderstood him for a long time. I couldn’t see his good heart under the rough exterior. What a dreadful life he has had. 14 hours a day stuck underground sweating over ovens or frozen amid refrigerators so that his daughter who only loved her mother really and showed it so obviously, so that his daughter could have her heart’s desire. I hope that it is not too late. It is four years since I left, 4 years – and the bombings – let’s hope that I don’t go back to a deserted home. Oh, God, I hope they live for many years yet. When I think about all this I think that everything will just be the same as before but, then, I know myself. Since the age of 16 family life weighed me down. The only thing keeping me at home were my mother’s eyes. If I stay, I will be dead as a woman and will work; the housework, the gardening, I’ll embroider beautiful tapestries and I’ll take the dog out with mum and dad. I will have to get married. I’ll live just nearby, say about 1/2 an hour from home (on foot of course) But, who will I find to marry? Who would want me? I am not beautiful but I’m not ugly either – but I am fat – and then, of course, the education I have had – ! Oh Good Lord!! Maybe I will find a job which’ll enable me to live away – in my own house – but my parents will move, Oh God!! What will I do if that happens! I won’t be able to live the way I want with them. It won’t work. Dad will go on about the electricity that I use late into the evening. Mum will get irritated if I stay up late and neither will be able to sleep before I come up to bed. Oh what does it matter if that happens. I will go back. I will fall in love with a chemist or an engineer at university and him with me. We will get married and we will have ourselves a lovely house just next to the main road he’ll go by car to work every morning and in the afternoon my parents will come over with Sammy – oh, no, Sammy will be dead by then. Oh God, why is it that the things we love have to die. Oh I don’t want to cry again this evening. One sobbing fit is enough for this evening. Oh Hell, what a life this is. What did my grandparents do for my parents to have had such a wretched life. Mum loses her mother at 14 and has to live with a step mother and a father who doesn’t care about her. The 14-18 war ruins my parents’ youth. Then poverty in a country they don’t know.[1] Dad works 14 hours a day, 13 days out of 14. [2] Mum lives in a house that she hates. Then it’s the Great Strike and the threat of the sack. Then it is the house in Nancy and the frightening totting up of the cost. I had nearly forgotten. Mum thrown out by her second step mother and then mum gets TB!! They move house and everything seems to be going well except for the perpetual threat to Dad’s job. He’s old and can’t see it. Then there’s the war. I leave. Then it’s the exode[3] and four months of agony not knowing whether the only thing that they care about is alive or dead – no news and the separation goes on. The daughter who is so far away. The dreadful radio reports. When will it all end? When will it all end? When I think about all that I feel that I will always stay with them. But, could I cope with so much love? I mustn’t think about it. I mustn’t ever think about it or else I would spend my life crying. – I need to go to bed. The radio has been on a lot today and it is half past 11. And what about my electricity ration? Phew! I have already eaten up the whole of next week’s ration. It’s the same with money – I’ve only got 50 francs left. I’ve done too much inviting over of friends – and the extra money from the cigarettes, Dilys doesn’t want any and I promised 200 francs to Godfather – they have got so little money that I daren’t give back word on that. I gave a packet to Cyla and I’ll manage by selling to Vautrin even at a loss to be able to make up something of the 200 francs. And Mme P hasn’t paid me for the month of July – 500 francs less makes a difference. Ah I really shouldn’t get so worked up – if I can get it everything will be fine again and life will be leisurely- and that goes for my parents’ life too. I’ve never yet had reason to complain about […] Touch wood.[4]
Sunday 15 August 1943
I am terrified about what post-war life will hold for me. With all my heart I want the war to be over but then what? Where will I live? What will I do? What will become of me? Where will I be able to live? Perhaps I will be able to find some work at home?
But the really big problem, and one that really sends chills down my spine, is how I relate to my parents. When I come back they will think that everything will be as it was before – but no it won’t be. I have changed. I have lived for four years on my own. I am no longer a child. I even think that I have gone straight from childhood to adulthood and missed the adolescence that I never had. I have made some amazing discoveries – that everyone keeps the same mentality even if the body changes – that faced with authority, whatever that authority is, everyone grovels and follows and lots more besides – I have been too close to misery and to death to be how I was before.
Thurs 26th August 1943 (sexuality)
My word, I regret being patriotic sometimes. Naturally, I wouldn’t look at a German even if it meant ending up dead in a dustbin. But, now and again – !! Went to get Panorama downstairs. The shopkeeper wasn’t there but there was an adorable Hun. Tall, tanned, blue eyes, very pleasant. And goodness me, he addressed me “My lady” all very kindly. I was sorry. He would have liked to know my name, to strike up conversation – but, well, he’s the enemy isn’t he? It is a shame that we are not at peace. Half an hour later and I am still thinking about him- that’s bad. (ps: I’m sorry that he is not French).
Monday 13 September
Slept in (7.10). Mussolini kidnapped (taken away) by parachutists!!! Never a dull moment. Office. Rain. Slept for an hour without meaning to. I want to get married.
October 10th 1943 (the future)
Yesterday the fortune teller (manucure – ok) told me that at 25 (ie: this year) I would be in danger of death if not dead. That doesn’t scare me. I do not think that I am going to die but I do think that I am going to have a very serious illness. What is written is written. My poor parents if I die. But, as I said, I don’t think that I will. I do sometimes think that I might have an illness at home in 18 months time.
After trying to get a job at university (I am not sure whether I will) I will get married to a lecturer probably a chemist. Then I will get a big house in the countryside with chickens, large gardens an orchard etc. I can’t decide between two plans. Neither are brilliant. The halls of each are too big, the stairs are difficult to fit in. I’ve done it approximately and it is not quite in proportion. I’d like an aquarium set in a wall and lit up at night. Why not? And I’d like a bathroom for each bedroom. An office for my husband and an office for me and a lot of bedrooms because I’d like four children at least, God willing. I prefer the main door at the front. There needs to be a wash basin on the ground floor with cupboards so that the children can hang up their coats and wash their hands before coming in. There will be central heating everywhere but fireplaces too. There’ll be an oven and a fridge. A big window over the sink etc. Gosh so many dreams! Linen cupboards, sink, sewing machine, table, bed because that room will be a medical room as well. I’ll need that if I have lots of children!
Friday 31 December 1943
Yesterday I was woken up at 4 am, This morning, I woke up bright as a button at 10 am!! It is lovely and warm. 11.10 – 12.50 and 12.51 – 1.20 pm alert. Saw squadrons. Lots in the sky but too high and the sky was too blue to see well. The suburbs were bombed. Lesson Capon. Bought a key to bleed the radiator. Now, I am independent of the concierge. My tulips and my crocus are coming through as well as the hyacinth!! They are too early. Very moving seeing the first green sproutings. Bought calendar. I don’t like it. Too long. Finished the evening and the year doing my bookkeeping. Happiness spoilt a little by having to sleep over at Villeparisis tomorrow. If I had the courage I would find an excuse. I am so bored at their place. On the whole not a bad year.
Saturday 1st January 1944 (always useful as an indicator of what she saw her duties as being…)
My New Year Resolutions?
1. 8 hours work or studies a day
2. 1 hour cleaning and 1 hour darning a day
3. 1/4 hour exercise each morning
4. Do today what could be done tomorrow (ie: reply immediately to letters, mend little holes as soon as I see them, etc)
5. Put myself first (for my free time etc)
6. Buy myself at least two outings a month
7. Be good.