Lucie Aubrac

Women's Resistance Through Gender Roles

by Amber McDonald

December 7, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page,
Women & Resistance project main page)

Diet Eman

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Within the Nazi Regime an effort was made to control all aspects of life in the Third Reich. Men were expected, and typically forced into the Army, children had to join the Hitler Youth in order to be integrated more fully into the goals and ideologies of the Third Reich, and women were given strict roles to adhere to that would enable them to further the cause of Nazi Germany. In fact, women and their roles were seen as the backbone of German society. From the beginning, the spheres that women were expected to attend to were emphasized not only through propaganda, but also through speeches and laws that were passed. As stated by Brana Gurewitsch in her book Mothers, Sisters, Resisters, women occasionally "benefited from the stereotypes perpetuated by Nazi ideology…The persistence of the stereotype of the passive, homebound woman dominated by her husband prevented Germans from immediately suspecting women of activities that did not fit this stereotype." The strict gender roles that the Nazis imposed acted as a shield and disguise under which women resistors could work. Two such women resistors that I will examine are Lucie Aubrac and Diet Eman. Although in different countries and working with different groups of resistance, both Lucie and Diet utilized the stereotypes of women propagated by Nazi Germany to move within their resistance efforts. Cases such as theirs exemplify how women were able to use the gender roles assigned to them by the Third Reich in order to work against the Nazis.

German women, and women within the influence of Germany, were expected to attend to the home. It was taught that women should build a stronger and more united Germany through raising children and serving their husbands. For this reason, many women were fired from their jobs, not allowed to work in government or hold office, and looked down upon if they were single or did not raise enough children. Joseph Goebbels, the State Minister for People's Enlightenment and Propaganda explained the woman’s role in a speech during the exhibit "Women" in Berlin in 1935 as "something quite different from the vocation men have." He goes on to describe that a woman's "first and foremost place is in the family, and the most wonderful duty which she can take on is to give her country and her people children, children which carry on the success of the race and assure the immortality of the nation."

This emphasis on the rearing of children is present throughout German propaganda and programs. In fact, Germany was so intent on consigning women to be solely mothers and homemakers that an organization called "Lebensborn" or "Fountain of Life" was set up in 1935 under the direction of Heinrich Himmler. Here, women who were seen as "racially fit" were provided to procreate with the purest of SS men. In this way, those who were single and unwed were still able to contribute to the advancement of "pure" German subjects.

Although many see these strict gender roles as a degrading act upon women, one which weakened their abilities to be heard and recognized, often women acting under the guise of the expectations of their gender were able to resist the Nazi Regime. Because men, and particularly those men indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda and ideals, saw women as weak and unable to be beneficial in any other area than child raising, women were often able to go undetected in working in resistance against the Third Reich. Women used the stereotypes placed upon them to create a seemingly innocent and benign alibi while actually participating in activities directed toward the destruction of Hitler and his Third Reich.

A poignant example of a woman resistor using the expectations that were placed on her as a woman is that of Lucie Aubrac, a member of the French Resistance during a Nazi-occupied France. Her memoir, Outwitting the Gestapo, written in the form of a journal, describes her actions in resisting the Nazis. In the beginning, Lucie is a supporting member for her husband, who is deeply involved in the Resistance. She uses her appearance of motherhood to cover up for secret meetings between her husband and other members of the Resistance. She strolls alongside them, thinking "a mother with a child, what could be more transparently innocent in a public park on a Sunday afternoon?" She was "happy to provide some slight cover for [the] meeting between the two resistants." In using her role as a mother, Lucie was able to distract the attention away from her husband and his partner. By emphasizing her duty as a wife, raising children, and acting under the responsibilities that are seen fit for a woman, Lucie draws
attention away from the true task at hand and thus aids the resistance effort.

Later in the book, when Lucie's husband is discovered and arrested by the Gestapo for his resistance activities, she takes on the main role and her resistance efforts are not done merely as a help to her husband, but she takes on new tasks. However, even though she is now participating on a main level, she still uses her role as a subservient woman and mother to accomplish her aims. In an effort to get her husband out of jail, she once again puts on the portrayal of a helpless woman. Pretending to be pregnant and using the social taboo of a pregnant, unmarried woman, she claims that she needs to see her husband, who the guards do not know that she is married to, in order to get him to marry her, as she is expecting his child. She acts defenseless and begs the Gestapo to let her husband go because she "is expecting a child" and does not want "to be an unwed mother." The Gestapo merely see her plight as one of an ordinary woman who was deceived by a man. Because of her gender, they do not look any more into her interest in the release of a prisoner who poses such a threat to German control. Most certainly had it been a man enquiring about the fate of Lucie's husband, he too would have been immediately suspected.

In her efforts in working against the Gestapo, Lucie, unlike many of the male characters in the novel does not use force or strength to resist, but rather the roles that are assigned to her as a woman. Because of the enforcement and focus of these roles, she is not seen as a threat, but is able to perform her duties using Nazi ideas on gender to her advantage.

Yet another example of a woman using the strict confines of gender roles to resist the Nazis is that of Diet Eman. In her memoir "Things We Couldn't Say" she details how she used the preconceived notions of women that Nazis propagated to her advantage. Working with the Resistance in Holland, Diet hid Jews, downed English pilots and other peoples considered "enemies" to the German State. Just as in the case of Lucie Aubrac, Diet first becomes involved with Resistance through her soon-to-be husband, Hein. However, she soon learns the limits that she, as a woman, is most successfully able to operate within. While working for men who were involved in espionage for the Underground and the Allies, she was given the task of delivering forged identification documents, ration cards and money. She notes that "for the men, the kind of travelling [she] did would have been much more dangerous, but for women it was not so. As a rule, Germans would not stop girls and start searching them" (168). This was because, to most Germans, women were not seen as capable of carrying out such tasks. To them, a women's place was in the home, and it was inconceivable for them to imagine any who would take on other tasks, especially those that involved such danger.

Another way that Diet was able to work within gender expectations was by portraying herself as less intelligent than she really was. Because women were seen as inferior by Nazis and such propaganda as they provided, it was assumed that women were inherently less smart than men. On one occasion, when Diet is arrested by the Gestapo for having a fake identification, she decides that the best way to save herself is to be "really dumb" and not "have the slightest idea how [she] could have received a bad ID" (188). When called in for her hearing, she plays the part of a simple maid, a profession that German men would not be surprised at women having. During her whole hearing she remembers that she played "the scared, stupid maid because [she] thought it was her only hope" (274). It was in fact this impersonation of a dumb maid that saved her life. The Nazis who where trying her merely assumed that due to the fact she was a woman, it was sensible that she would have such a character.

Just as with Lucie Aubrac, Diet Eman, though in a different country and working against group of Nazis, was able to use gender roles to her advantage to help her resist against the German occupation. Both these women were able to bend and exploit the strict ideas that were assigned to women by the Nazis in order to work against them.

Partial Bibliography (see also Woman and Resistance project bibliography)
(back to top)

  • Aubrac, Lucie. Outwitting the Gestapo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
    Outwitting the Gestapo, based on the true story of Lucie Aubrac who worked for the French Resistance during World War II, retells Aubrac’s wartime activities through the form of a diary. Particularly interesting within this book is the way in which the author explains how her own gender helped to aid her in her resistance efforts. By using traditional gender roles, Aubrac was able to further her abilities to work against the Nazis. (Amber McDonald)
  • Eman, Diet. Things We Couldn’t Say. Grand Rapid, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.
    Taken from both journal entries and reflections of the author, Things We Couldn’t Say tells the story of a woman involved in resistance work in Holland during Nazi occupation. The author particularly emphasizes the role that both her religion and her gender aided her in continuing her resistance efforts during the course of the war. (Amber McDonald)

About the Author (back to top)

Amber McDonald is a third-year history major at UC Santa Barbara. Especially interested in the many aspects involved in World War II, she has always been particularly intrigued by the Holocaust and its ability to reveal the many different sides of human nature. This interest led her to take Professor Marcuse's course History of the Holocaust in order to help her learn more about not only the history of the Holocaust, but the people involved.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/7/05; last updated: 12/14/05
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