When investigating political violence in France between the wars, there is a notable absence from press and police report: women. Yet women were not completely absent from French street politics. Female members of the extreme right-wing ‘leagues’ were present at important ceremonies: Jeunesses Patriotes women joined male counterparts at parades, keeping “a resolute and energetic pace.” Similarly, women took part in left-wing ceremonies and events, as well as being present at antifascist demonstrations.
Whether women were actively involved in violence is a rather more difficult question to answer. On rare occasions female leaguers could be armed at meetings. Occasionally one comes across a woman who was punished for violence, usually for slapping a police officer, which seems to have been considered a ‘feminine’ form of attack
The overall participation of women in the riot of 6 February 1934 (when the leagues and war veterans attempted to storm parliament) is unknown. Undoubtedly, the leagues would have discouraged the involvement of women, given the exclusion of French females from the ‘public sphere’ – women only received the right to vote, and thus became full citizens, in 1945.
What scant information that exists allows the formulation of only a partial picture. Women helped to treat the injured. Lucille Sumpt, a nurse during the Great War, had arranged to join the veterans’ march at 8.30pm. Unable to reach the meeting point, Sumpt, dressed in her nurse’s uniform, tended the wounded at the restaurant Weber. Women were themselves injured on the night, and one, Corentine Gourland, was shot dead by a stray bullet as she stood on the balcony at the Hotel Crillon, which overlooked the square.
One of the processions on 6 February was notable for its inclusion of women: that of the Union nationale des combattants, a right-wing veterans’ association. Unlike the leagues, women were not permitted to join the UNC. Consequently, it is paradoxical that during the riot women were apparently most numerous in the ranks of the UNC.
While some of these women may have been simple bystanders, others accompanied their husbands and fathers. L’intransigeant reported: ‘Mixed with the veterans to the order of ten to one, women, young girls, young people, veterans’ wives, who did not want to leave their husband, their father.’ According to ‘Rouxanne’, a journalist for Gringoire, these women wanted to associate themselves with the ‘honest people’ and be on hand to ‘help, to care and to relieve’. They contrasted sharply with the wives of the ‘privileged’ who watched from the other side of the Seine, deriving a perverse pleasure from seeing unarmed men and war-disabled beaten. Their perfume mixed with the smell of gunpowder and excited (sexually) the killers to higher levels of depravity.
Though we do not know the reasons for their participation, it is plausible that some women were accompanying their disabled spouse or parent. This task carried risks. A journalist at Le Journal saw a woman carried away, ‘…injured in the fight, where she was accompanying her husband [who had been] blinded in the war’.
Attacks against women were said to prove the brutality of the enemy, and the right regularly reported communist violence against its women and their children. It is in this role of victim that women featured most commonly in post-riot press reports.