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The unknown story of pioneering French feminist Martha Desrumaux

© Friends of Martha Desrumaux | Martha Desrumaux at the Textile Congress, June 1948.

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2018-08-04

A month after Simone Veil was interred in the Panthéon, an association is campaigning for French Resistance fighter and trade unionist Martha Desrumaux to also be inducted, saying that she too deserves recognition.

Some people seem to live a thousand lives because of the experiences they go through. Martha Desrumaux is one of them. Born in Comines, northern France, Desrumaux was variously a factory worker, a trade unionist, a resistance fighter, a member of parliament and was also deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp during World War II. Yet her story remains virtually unknown, even in her own country.

Thirty-five years after her death, a Lille-based association called “Friends of Martha Desrumaux,” is actively campaigning for her to be interred in the Panthéon. "We want to bring this woman out of obscurity," says Laurence Dubois, president of the association. "She belonged to the working class that built France. I am delighted that Simone Veil made it into the Panthéon, but there’s no one there who truly belonged to the people."

© © Friends of Martha Desrumaux | Martha was evacuated from northern France with some of her family during World War One. She then worked in a factory in Lyon, where she stayed until 1920. This photograph dates back to 1919.

Desrumaux epitomised the French working-class life of factories, sweat and toil. Born in 1897 into a family of seven children, she had to face life’s hardships at a very early age. Her father died when she was 9 and she began work as a servant for an affluent family in the suburbs of Lille.

But even then, she was a woman of character. Desrumaux managed to escape and return to Comines where she began working at a local factory. At 13, she joined the CGT, one of France’s most powerful unions. "She felt that she wanted to be involved in something, so she took part in the strikes organised by the textile factories. She was a feminist before feminism was a thing, and once managed to get her colleagues’ wooden shoes to protect them from puddles of water and oil at the factory," Dubois says.

Defiant till the end

Desrumaux was restless in her activism. She went on to join the Communist Party and kept fighting for the textile workers’s rights -- even during the heyday of the Popular Front – an alliance of left-wing movements that won the May 1936 legislative elections. In 1936, she was the only woman member of the labour delegation to the Matignon agreements, the biggest social reforms of the 20th century in France. That same year, she was also involved with the Spanish Republicans in their fight against Franco.

© © Friends of Martha Desrumaux | In 1927, Desrumaux headed a women's delegation to Moscow to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. There she met Clara Zetkin, a fervent campaigner for women's rights.

During the Second World War she went into hiding in order to organise strikes against the German occupation of France. However, in August 1941 she was arrested and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Despite the terrible living conditions inside the camp, Martha took care of the weaker prisoners, including Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier – a member of the French Resistance and a photojournalist.

"Her main attribute is her defiance. She never gave in to the Vichy regime or the German occupation," Dubois said. Desrumaux was eventually released in April 1945 and quickly resumed her struggle. That summer, she was among the country’s first sixteen parliamentary representatives. She continued to work with the Lille city council, the CGT and the feminist movement, the National Council of French Women.

"She was an extraordinary woman," Dubois concludes admiringly. But the question remains, why isn’t she more well-known?

"Martha was from the working class. She did not leave any written work nor was she married to someone famous. However French historian Pierre Outteryck, who wrote a book on her, views her as the greatest figure of the working-class movement in the twentieth century," Dubois says.

‘She was happy to be invisible’

The 'Friends of Martha Desrumaux' association is seeking to redress the balance and has launched a petition for Desrumaux to join other Ravensbrück survivors, such as Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, in the Panthéon.

But Desrumaux’s politics, viewed as more leftist compared to that of Tillion’s, might pose a problem for her inauguration. “I know we will be told that she was a communist and a member of the CGT. But it is 2018 and Martha has done so much for everyone,” Dubois says in a bid to remain optimistic.

In September, a school in Lille will be named after her and a public garden in Paris’s 12th arrondissement (district) will also honour her memory. “But how do you think Martha would have reacted to all this? She would probably have said, 'Why are you doing it?'” Dubois said. “Martha was very modest. She was happy to be invisible and she did all this for others not for herself.”

© © Friends of Martha Desrumaux | Desrumaux after the liberation of Ravensbrück concentration camp in April 1945.

Date created : 2018-08-04


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