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A (Brief) History of Women in European Resistance Movements during the Second World War

Throughout the pandemic, we have been blasted endlessly with variations of he phrase: "During these uncertain/unprecedented/turbulent times, it is important to stay strong and courageous."In the larger context of history, citizens of the 21st century have it relatively easy. Close your eyes. Imagine it's 1940 and your country is invaded. Your home is destroyed. Your civil rights and liberties are legally terminated and your beliefs are now punishable by death. What do you do? What can you do?

Some chose to move on with life and survive under the rules of the new occupiers. Others, chose to resist.

The history of European resistance movements in the Second World War is a fascinating yet troubling moment in time to study. The secretive nature of the business of those involved in its deployment make uncovering its history difficult and often untraceable. Even when history can be uncovered, its retelling can be Resistance emerged in four main forms including civilian movements, military branches, clandestine press and intelligence units. When discussing resistance history, an interesting trend in resistance historiography is to encourage historians and scholars to stop placing a 'the' in front of resistance whenever this particular topic is discussed.(1) Claiming "the" resistance of any group did anything is superficial and false, as it suggests there was only one group in each province or region.

Moving forward, resistance history is fascinating for its ability to blend together multiple facilitated areas of history such as military, civilian and the events surrounding the Holocaust. This article was not created to give a complete history of the Second World War, but rather to highlight some of the brave women whose actions had a large impact in saving thousands during these truly tumultuous times.

Virginia Hall

She was born with the name of Virginia Hall in 1906 but later became known as the Limping Lady during the Second World War. Hall had a thirst for adventure from a young age and was fortunate to have parents who supported her ambitions. After graduating from Radcliffe College, she went to work for several American Embassies in Eastern Europe. In 1933, Hall was part of a shooting expedition in Turkey and received a nearly fatal leg wound when a faulty gun misfired and shot off part of her leg. While the injury halted her desire to enter the Foreign Services, it did not impede her desire to travel nor undertake dangerous work.

In 1941, Hall was recruited for the SOE, the Special Operations Executive run by the British government to conduct resistance work in Nazi-controlled Europe. Hall's impressive language resume of English, French and German skills gave her a massive advantage in communicating and coordinating with multi-nationally organizations and planning. Hall managed to impressively live the entirety of the war without capture and continually moved throughout France to avoid detection. Hall was a prolific mutli-tasker, acting in various roles and performing many life-threatened jobs. She worked as a radio operator conveying secret intelligence gathered from locals she made friends with: she was particularly close with the madam of a brothel who shared information prostitutes would charm out of unsuspecting male patrons (2). She also worked as an attendant to downed airmen, helping them to find shelter, false papers and aid until they could be moved from France to neutral Spain where they could be shipped back to England and returned to the fighting. Joseph Goebbels himself recognized the danger of downed airmen, as they were precious assets in the war and sentenced anyone caught assisting them to death. (4) In addition, Hall was a smuggler of contraband using her false leg, affectionately nicknamed Cuthbert, in which she could hide everything from false papers, to medication to gun powder.

As the Nazis learned of her prowess, they began to scour France for the Limping Lady and she was forced to flee. After the war, Hall and her few associates who survived were given little public recognition for their actions. Hall was given a desk job by the new Central Intelligence Office where she worked for a number of years on Soviet-related projects. In 1957, she retired to Maryland with her amour, Paul Goillot. (5).

Marie-Madeline Fourcade

Similar to Hall, Fourcade worked in occupied France with the operative British forces, where she controlled her own independent group called "Alliance." Alike to Hall, she experienced a global youth growing in Shanghai thanks to her father's position in the French Maritime services. Her later years were spent in Morocco, exposing Fourcade to a global perspective from a young age.

The Alliance group was formed by Fourcade and her associate George Loustaunau-Lacau, who would go by the alias Navarre in 1940 and passed important information to the British Intelligence. This included information on the V2 rockets and maps of the Normandy coast which would be used during the D-Day invasion. (6) At its height, the Alliance had over 3000 members and Fourcade was soon left in complete control when Navarre was arrested in July of 1941.

Unlike Hall, Fourcade was captured by the Gestapo on several occasions but managed to physically free herself from prison, claiming to have on one occasion, slip through the bars of the prison at three o'clock in the morning (7). Fourcade continually moved the headquarters of the Alliance throughout different cities in France including Lyon, Marseilles and Toulouse as she recognized the importance of unpredictability in resistance work. The Alliance's work did not cease even after liberation, as Fourcade turned the once clandestine group into The Friends of the Alliance: an organization that assisted those deported throughout Europe with finding their loved ones. Fourcade also wrote her own book entitled Noah's Ark, detailing her experiences. (8)

Yvonne Jospa

Belgium's history in the early part of the twentieth century is one rife with strife and constant war. Resistance movements found a welcome home within a population that faced not only one but two violations of their neutrality resulting in emotionally and physically violent invasions. Although war heroes such as Edith Cavell and Andree de Jongh have found homes inside history textbooks, there are more women who did amazing work who deserve equal recognition but whose histories have been overshadowed.

Yvonne Jospa, nee Have Groisman, was born in 1910 in Bessarabia, which would later be known as Romania. In the early 1930s, she left her family to attend university in Belgium, a common practice for women of her era as Belgium had a robust university system that welcomed foreign women (9). Jospa undertook a degree in social work and spent the 1930s aiding refugee children from the Spanish Civil War. She married her husband, Ghert Jospa in 1933 and later they worked to aid refugees from Belgium and France who wished to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

The couple continued their resistance work into the Second World War when they began the Committee for the Defence of the Jews. The purpose of the CDJ was to protect Jews from the Nazi laws that went into power. The Committee was divided into two sections: one for adults who sought refuge from work deportation orders and for their children who needed care while their parents hid. Jospa recognized it was easier to divide up families than to try and shelter large groups. Using her social work education and several assistants such as Ida Sterno and Andree Geulen, they created a system that not only provided children with homes for them to hide in but provided their mental and emotional needs. (10) The children were checked upon once a month and a clever card index was created to ensure their information was coded in order not to lose any children, but could not be understood if discovered by the Gestapo. (11) Jospa understood the power of being hidden in plain sight by using Gentile women as "conveyors' ' who took Jewish children from safe house to safe house. It was less suspicious to have a woman with a lone child than to have a man escorting children.

Jospa was fortunate to have survived the war without arrest. She applied for resistance worker status as issued by the Belgian Government after the war and continued her social work. She co-founded the group M.R.A.P in 1949, the Movement against Racism, Anti-Semitism and for peace (Movement contre le racisme, l'antisemitisme, et la xenophobia) (12). Jospa was survived by her son Paul, who continues to promote his parent's work.


History has not favoured these women. Where are their airports, elementary schools or municipal buildings? Historians point their fingers at a modern problem: the majority of those who do receive commemoration are largely under the age 30 and whose stories appeal to the Hollywood ideals of escape and beauty. (13) The work of a social worker or a radio operator, although brilliant and important, does not inspire adventure or adrenaline the same way as a hero would such as Andree de Jongh or Edith Caville. Moments such as these, where forgotten history is discussed is important as it continues to amplify previously quieted voices. For as the voices and stories to continue to grow in volume, the ones previously silenced can be heard and admired for their booming courage. Works Cited 1. Moore, Bob. Resistance in Western Europe. Oxford: Berg, 2000. Print. Page 1

2. Purnell, Sonia , A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, New York: Viking. 2019. Page 59

3. Ibid. 62

4. Remy, Adeline. “The engagement of women in the line of escape Comète (1941-1944): between myth and reality?”. Vandenbussche, Robert.Women and Resistance in Belgium and in the prohibited zone. Lille: Publications of the Institute for Historical Research of the Septentrion, 2007.

5. Purnell, 305.

6. Olson, Lynne. Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler. Random House Publising Group. 2019. Page 248

7. "Marie-Madeline Fourcade." Wikimedia Foundation. Last edit June 13th, 2021.

8. Fourcade, Marie-Madeleine. Noah's Ark. New York: Dutton, 1974

9. Sarah Belli, « Assistantes sociales en Résistance. Note sur Yvonne Jospa et Ida Sterno », Les Cahiers de la Mémoire Contemporaine [En ligne], 7 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2020, consulté le 27 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI : . Section 7.

10. Ibid. Section 15 11 . Kless, Shlomo. “The Rescue Of Jewish Children In Belgium During The Holocaust.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 3, no. 3, 1988, pp. 275–287., 281.

12. "MRAP (NGO)" Wikimedia Foundation. Last edit September 28th, 2021.

13. Vandenbussche, Robert, ed. Women and Resistance in Belgium and in the prohibited zone.Lille: Publications of the Institute for Historical Research of the Septentrion, 2007. Web. <>. Section 17


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