CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio Investigates the “Politics” of Motherhood

An illustration from the Bulletin des Groupes féministes de l’Enseignement laique calling for Maternity as a Social Function. The caption reads: “we demand that society finally understandthe role that is required: that the mother’s budget replace the war budget, that the budget for life replace the budget for death.” It points out that the War Budget of the French state is 5000 million francs, whereas the Mother’s Budget amounts to a mere 114 million francs.

Motherhood around the world has never been simply a matter of women bearing children. It has never been simply about the joys of maternity or the fears about keeping children healthy and safe. Sometimes, as was the case in many European countries, the governments got into the act. Feminists, too, demanded that governments designate maternity as a paid social function. Why? Because the conditions for maternity were terrible, birth-rates were falling, many of the babies who survived childbirth would die before their first birthday, those who lived longer suffered stunted growth, and the leaders of nation-states feared the economic (and military) consequences of the stagnant population. Promoting contraceptive information was illegal and often young women were ill-informed about how to avoid pregnancies.

Henriette Alquier published the following analysis of French motherhood in 1927. She was subsequently prosecuted by the French government for promoting neomalthusian (e.g. contraceptive) propaganda; the government’s real agenda, however, was probably anticommunist. Alquier’s denunciation of the statute of motherhood under capitalism clearly reveals the inspiration she and others found in the measures taken in the USSR since the revolution of 1917 to reconcile motherhood with paid labor for women. Alquier’s feminist analysis was further informed by eugenic thinking and by the latest findings of the pronatalist medical community in France, especially those of the physician Dr. Adolphe Pinard.

Clio loves to present historical feminists speaking in their own words. Here is the first part of Alquier’s text, which appeared in 1927 in a periodical published by radical secular schoolteachers.

[Maternity, a Social Function]

In a democratic society where the people are truly sovereign, where liberty, equality, fraternity will no longer be vain words, questions of Maternity and Childhood [l’Enfance], today so anguishing, will be resolved. Men and women, equally free [affranchis] economically, politically and morally, will work together, truly united, for the prosperity of society. Childhood, far from being the source of infinite suffering and incessant torment for the mother, will be, for workers, a thousand reasons for joy, happiness, and comfort. Maternity, finally recognized as a social function, will provide a regenerated world, capable of leading toward an ideal society in which each will find the maximum of happiness.

But. . . has democratic France not obtained these results, or has she done nothing to obtain them? Evidently, yes! The poets have sung the poetry of naive and pure Childhood, and the joy of mothers. Our philanthropists have evoked the image of the happy and satisfied family; our politicians have endorsed generous principles and have praised the institutions of our country, capable of “preparing a sovereign and free people.”

Our work will consist of studying the present situation of the family; of examining what has been done to remedy a situation that is all too obviously appalling, and to sketch what ought to be done so that in society mother and child can find the protection and sollicitude to which they have a right. Finally, we will ask this question: are such realizations possible in the present state of society? Under what conditions could they become practical?

[The first section, “Situation de la famille,” contrasts the family predicaments of the bourgeoisie, the middle classes, and the working class. Alquier then depicts what happens to the young working-class couple once children begin to arrive.]

Maternity. But the household prospers, if not monetarily, at least in terms of progeny. She is pregnant. So many torments and worries! There is no time to rest, for the forthcoming birth will entail expenses: layette, cradle, the costs of giving birth. For the bourgeois woman, a pregnancy is a pretext for being waited on and spoiled more than ever. For the working woman, it is a reason to push herself harder than ever. At the workshop or the factory, she hides her condition until the last moment so that she won’t be fired. She tries to vanquish the fatigue, the health problems, inhales the unhealthy air of the factory, lifts the stacks of wood cuttings [buches] in the vineyard, lifts burdens that are too heavy,. Poor woman! She has heard it said that one must take it easy: but she has also heard that one must push oneself so that the infant “can detach itself more easily.” Which of these two things is true? She doesn’t know! She doesn’t have enough money to sacrifice for a visit to the midwife or the doctor. As for hygiene, she has never heard any talk about that. So goes the pregnancy. Thus, how many abortions take place among the laboring classes, of infants born before term. Doctor Pinard has stated that “because of the overwork of mothers, half the infants that are born in Paris are premature and die early or else remain weaklings throughout their lives.”

And if the pregnancy arrives at term, how many complications arise which could have been prevented by the attentive care of doctors or midwives: bad position of the foetus to rectify, urine analysis that could reveal albumin and prevent crises of eclampsia by an appropriate diet – hygiene of the sexual organs that could avoid puerpural fever. Thus, lacking hygiene and proper care, many poor women die in childbirth, or remain in tatters after a single birth.

A few days of bedrest and the mother, concerned to see her household going to the dogs or in the maladroit hands of her husband, gets up, still aching, her organs still displaced. There is no question of working outside the household! She must nurse the little one who has just been born, change it four or five times per day: rinse, wash, and iron the layette, take care of the household laundry, prepare the food – this is much more than our convalescent can deal with, and this added to nights consoling the little darling who is much loved but who cries a lot.

But this already precarious situation becomes even worse. There is one more mouth to feed, an excess of need and fatigue, and the family’s income is reduced to that of the father. Something has to be done. The young mother takes in “home work,” in order not to abandon the little one. Her life becomes a torment, for this type of exploitation takes up any available leisure time. Whether she makes men’s shirts, stockings on a machine, embroidery, lace, rope soles for shoes, her earnings never rise above 8 and 10 francs, for a task that requires the suppression of every moment of rest.

Is she going to work outside her home? She takes the breast away from the baby, hands it over to a neighbor who will give it a bottle when it cries – without paying attention to the regularity of feedings or the cleanliness of the bottle, because she has no time or is ignorant. Thus the mortality rate for nurslings has risen to 30 per cent for last year (1925).

Source: Henriette Alquier, “La Maternité, fonction sociale,” Bulletin des Groupes féministes de l’Enseignement laique, no. 36 (Feb. 1927), [pp. 13-20], supplement of L’École emancipée, no. 23 (27 Feb. 1927). Bibliothéque Nationale, microfilm 459 (15). Transl. Karen Offen.