WW2: The Treatment of Women in France During the Occupation and Liberation

Women in France during WW2

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How women were treated in occupied & liberated France

'Les Tondues'

Take a really close look at the photograph above. At first glance, it simply seems like a woman having her hair cut, doesn't it? But look again - the woman's head is actually being shaved.

This happened to tens of thousands of women. Why?

During the occupation of France, most younger men were fighting, working in labour camps or had been sent to internment facilities. Women had to fend for themselves. For many of them, this meant 'collaboration' with the occupying German forces.

This took many forms. Some women indulged in what was later known as horizontal collaboration (a self-explanatory term, I think). Others did business with the Germans; buying black market goods, for example. The rule of thumb was this, that any woman who had 'had a relationship with a German' was a collaborator. Tens of thousands of women had. What else were they supposed to do?

In many cases, women 'collaborated' as it was the only way they could feed their children or their elderly relatives. Some women who had been involved romantically with Germans had been genuinely in love; these had been real relationships. Many had borne half-German children.

Even those women who had worked for Germans in legitimate and respectable jobs - such as cleaning offices or doing their laundry - were seen as being collaborators. However, more often than not, it was simply a case of survival.

Once France was liberated, the French people decided that these women should be punished and public humiliation was deemed to be suitable. Throughout France, women were publicly shaved of their hair - often whilst cheering crowds watched - rather like public hangings in times gone by.

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Why?

When French men exacted this punishment on their women, they were reacting to their own emasculation during the occupation. They had failed to look after their women; many of their women had no choice but to 'collaborate' if they hoped to survive. French men in P.O.W camps in Germany had slept with German girls with no consequences or reprisals. By degrading their own women, they recreated their own respectability.

Public humiliation

Paraded through the streets of France

These women were known as les tondues ('the shaven ones') and it wasn't enough for them to be branded in such a way. They were often paraded through the streets, sometimes in their underwear and often in bare feet, and exhibited to the jeering crowds.

The hair was burned in large bonfires as the crowds cheered.

In many cases, the women had swastikas painted onto their foreheads, just to drive the message home even further. In some cases, the women were stripped naked as they were forced to demonstrate themselves in the streets.

The crowds - made up of the local citizenry - would jeer and jostle the women. They would be kicked, beaten and stoned.

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One woman's story

English woman Priscilla Mais

Priscilla was largely educated in France, even though she was British born. She was the daughter of a well-known broadcaster and writer with whom she had a complex relationship. Hence. she preferred to live in France. She had many friends there, some of them influential.

In 1938, she married a minor French aristocrat - a man several years older than herself. The couple adored each other but to Priscilla's disappointment, the marriage wasn't consummated. She desperately wanted children.

However, when war broke out, she was in a protected position, living with his family in their remote chateau whilst her husband was in the French army.

His family tolerated her existence in the family home - she was never completely accepted - but when the authorities declared that there would be the strictest reprisals for any French person who was harbouring a British citizen, she was forced to fend for herself.

Harbouring enemy aliens was punishable by death and Priscilla was aware that she was putting her in-laws in grave danger.

Priscilla: Nicholas Shakespeare

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France
Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

Nicholas Shakespeare's aunt was always a mystery to him when he was growing up. He knew her as a rather sad, middled-aged woman but there was definitely a huge aura of mystery that surrounded her and her past. In this book, that past is meticulously researched and recorded.

 

She returned to her favourite place,Paris. She had no training, no job and no money. (She had trained as a ballerina in her teens but a serious illness had ended her ambitions.)

However, she was young and beautiful.

She was also the sort of woman than men fell in love with. She had a vulnerability that made men want to protect her and care for her.

Priscilla went through the proper channels and registered with the authorities as a British resident or, as she was referred to, an 'enemy alien'. This limited her movements badly as she had to report to the authorities daily. But she survived.

Early one morning, she was awoken by the police. They were arresting all British women who were resident in Paris and sending them to a camp at Besançon. There was a total of 1,965 women. Some of these women had young children who were also taken to the camp. Many of the women had not been born in the UK but were classed as British because of their fathers' nationality.

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She survived the camp and she survived the war. She was eventually married again, in England to a wealthy English farmer, and died at the age of sixty five, her secrets unknown. Even her family knew little about her life during the wartime years.

Some years after Priscilla's death, her nephew discovered a large chest full of letters, photographs and notes about her life during the Second World War. She intended to write a memoir one day.

Already a writer of some note, how could her nephew fail to be intrigued? Carefully and meticulously, he went through his aunt's papers, piecing together the chronology of her life in France. It was obvious from the love letters she had kept that she had had serious affairs with various men, including one of the most popular film stars of the day.

He studied and analysed all the photographs and their inscriptions.

He travelled to France to the various locations described in her notes to interview those who remembered her and discover more about her mysterious life. he looked up her old friends, on both sides of the English Channel and probed them for details.

What he discovered is truly amazing.

The result of this immaculate research is accumulated in the book you see above - a book I highly recommend.

_____________

France after the liberation

To get some idea of life in France after the Second World War, please watch the videos below. They are truly shocking.

Note that this punishment was not meted out by authorities. In many cases mobs recruited the local barbers to perform the deed. There were cases recorded of fathers shaving their daughters' heads - husbands cutting away all their wives' hair.

Remember too that yes, some of these women were prostitutes who had German clients, or women like Priscilla who chose the wrong lovers. But others suffered this humiliating fate because they worked as drudges in German-owned factories or scrubbed the floors in the officers' mess.

In some cases, women took their own lives rather than face the humiliation.

When you watch the videos, just look at the faces of the men who are clearly reveling in the event. See how men raise their fingers behind the women's shaved heads to create 'devil's horns'.

Finally, as I watch the videos there's one phrase that keeps coming into my mind:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.



Les Tondues videos

© 2014 Jackie Jackson

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14 comments

BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

I will - thank you Loretta!


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

That's great Loretta, thanks!


Loretta L profile image

Loretta L 2 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

Give me a shout when your Channel Island lens is transferred and I'll come visit it.


Loretta L profile image

Loretta L 2 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

Hi Jackie. The book is Half-Hidden by Emma Blair. There are some by Judith Saxon which, if I remember correctly, may deal with the same thing. I don't know whether I a, allowed to post links on her, but you can find the book on Amazon, and probably find some reviews on Goodreads if you are on there. If you are, do come and say hi. Anyway, I hope you find them interesting.


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@Loretta L - thank you, that would be wonderful. I've been fascinated by the Channel Islands and their occupation ever since I went to Jersey when I was a teenager (I have a lens to be transferred from Squidoo about it). Hope to hear from you:)


Loretta L profile image

Loretta L 2 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

I'm trying to think of the story I read set in the Channel Islands during the war. If I remember, i'll come back and let you know. It's pretty sad at the end, though. But it would be interesting for your research.


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

Wow Loretta,I hadn't heard that about the Channel Islands (which is quite an interest of mine). Thanks for letting me know - it sounds like an interesting research project.


Loretta L profile image

Loretta L 2 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

I believe a similar thing may have happened in the Channel Islands. Yes, horrific.


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

Thanks for sharing :) I knew nothing about it either until I read the book. That made me really look into the history of 'les tondues'. It's quite horrific when you think that so many people were doing what they had to do simply to survive.


DreyaB profile image

DreyaB 2 years ago from France

I had no idea about this, not very good of me considering I live in France, but I'm still learning so much. This sounds like a fascinating book and it reminds me of one I read recently about related ex-German families living in the UK before WWI and what happened during the war years, that was so informative too. Thanks so much for sharing this, something else to go on my reading list and I've shared it too. :0)


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@pawpawwrites - thank you so much for your comments.I do feel that it's important that these situations aren't forgotten - they are a lesson to us all. That's a great quote about the will to survive. Isn't that a human instinct? Therefore anyone who obeyed that instinct shouldn't be punished in such a degrading way, surely?


Pawpawwrites profile image

Pawpawwrites 2 years ago from Kansas

What a horrible time for those who were trapped in such situations. In some circumstances, the will to survive makes your decisions for you. I have a letter from WWII, that tells of how some collaborators had all of their possessions piled in the middle of the street, and burned while people watched. Thanks for writing this. It is important that we not forget the cruelty that humans are capable of. We may need to refer to the lesson that history should have taught us, soon.


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@stereomike83 - It was indeed. What a horrible thing.The fact that these men took matters into their own hands was pretty shameful. No doubt a few of the women deserved it but for most, they had little choice. Thanks for dropping by!


stereomike83 profile image

stereomike83 2 years ago from UK

Interesting and insightful article as always. I remember a scene depicting this in Band of Brothers although think that part was based in Holland suggesting the practise was also strife in other parts of Europe

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