CLIO TALKS BACK: Women’s Right to Choose to be Mothers or Not: Nelly Roussel (1878-1922)

The feminist and Neo-Malthusian activist Nelly Roussel was the first woman in France to assert publicly women’s right to choose whether or not to become mothers as a feminist issue: in fact, she insisted that women’s control of their own bodies was the key to their emancipation. Roussel was then in her 20s, a married woman with a young daughter, and a third unanticipated baby born in 1904. (her second child, a son born in 1901, had died in infancy). As a journalist in the all-woman daily La Fronde and other newspapers since her debut in 1899, by 1903 she had emerged as a forceful public speaker for Paul Robin’s League for Human Regeneration, which, amid official efforts to address the ongoing scare over France’s falling birth rate, launched a deliberately provocative campaign to spread birth control propaganda and contraceptive information among working-class women. Roussel toured France, delivering lectures on “the eternal victim” in which she elaborated at length on many of the themes sketched out in this moving indictment. She believed that those who did become mothers should be recognized publicly for their “services,” and their contributions valued economically as well as socially. She also argued that women had a right to sexual pleasure without having to worry about getting pregnant.

In late October 1904, for the centennial celebration of the French Civil Code – the laws that regulated marriage and many other aspects of life – Nelly gave a speech protesting the Code for its adverse effects on married women and mothers. She did not mince words in laying out the issues:

“[All]women, in whatever situation they were born, have an interest in a profound [social] upheaval. Among us there are no “ruling classes,” no “privileged classes.” All of us can declare war on today’s society, for all of us are more or less ruined, our bodies, our hearts, our consciences brutalized by its laws. Great ladies are mistreated by princely brutes; bourgeoises dispossessed of their property; working women frustrated by their meager salaries; active, intelligent women who wish to utilize the resources of their brains, to develop their personalities freely, and who see so many doors closing before them, so many obstacles rising in their path; proud women who are repelled by the idea of being kept women, who suffer from not being able to be self-sufficient and having each day to beg their subsistence from some “protector” – legal or illegal – who often makes them pay dearly for his protection. Mothers especially! Oh, yes indeed, mothers, the noble working women of life, whom Society does not acknowledge and denigrates, even while it dares ask them to multiply their troubles and to work for it unceasingly and without reprieve! The most odious aspect of the situation we find ourselves in is that they invoke against us precisely that thing that ought to plead on our behalf. They see as an obstacle to our re-establishment – a pretext for drenching us with sorrow and humiliation in this maternal function – this terrible and sublime function that ought, on the contrary, to assure us every honor and every solicitude!
No honors are too great, no praise too high, for those brave soldiers who are mutilated in battle. But on our own battlefield, we mothers find no glory to be garnered. So-called civilized society has placed the work of death above the work of life by reserving, by some inconceivable aberration, its homage for the destructive soldier, its disdainful indifference for the woman who creates life. . . .” 

And Roussel continued:

“Is it not true, citoyennes, my sisters; is it not true, you liberated and conscious women, you who have come here this evening to join your protests with our own; is it not true that a woman must be a mother in order to become truly indignant? That she must have experienced all aspects of a woman’s life? That she know how much sorrow and sacrifice there is in this sublime role, to understand just how much is owed her, to measure well the ingratitude of man, and to stand up tall and straight in the face of dogma and codes, in the face of churches that insult her and of social institutions that crush her!!  
But beware, oh Society! The day will come – don’t doubt it – it has already come for some – when the eternal victim will become weary of carrying in her loins sons whom you will later teach to scorn their mothers, or daughters destined – alas! – to the same life of sacrifice and humiliation! The day when we will refuse to give you, ogres, your ration of cannon-fodder, of work-fodder, and fodder for suffering! The day, at last, when we will become mothers only when we please, when we will have resolved, after careful reflection, that we ourselves have good reason to do so; and especially when we will be very certain that we can make of our children beings who are strong enough so that they will not become your victims, and revolted enough by you so that you will have no reason to take pride over our birthings.” 

By 1907 Nelly Roussel had become even bolder in her analysis of French society’s appalling treatment of mothers and more radical in her proposals for change:
“The generative function – with all its physiological and moral consequences – is certainly the most serious thing, the primordial and dominant thing about feminine existence. Adversaries and partisans of feminist theories agree on this fact.  
And it is somewhat curious to attest that this generative function furnishes both sides with their supreme argument, their climactic point, in support of their reasoning.  
But, insofar as the first insist on seeing in this [function] only a cause of woman’s essential and irremediable inferiority and a rationale for her subordination (a primitive notion, worthy of barbarous times when the “right of the strongest” was the only rule), the second, inspired by the modern ideal of justice, would like it to become, for she who accomplishes it, a source of material and moral advantages, independence, influence, and well-being; and in its name they formulate their principal demands.  
In a time when it is agreed that every duty responds to a right, that all work merits pay, and that every difficulty should be compensated – no one, indeed, has more right to complain and to make demands than mothers.  
Treated by the present law of marriage – as by the Christian Bible and the dogmas of every religion – less as a human, conscious being than as an object that a husband can do with what he will, as a reproductive machine that must work incessantly; abandoned, moreover, completely by an ungrateful Society that cares very little about helping her to raise the children that it demands of her; stripped of her noble prerogatives, deprived of all rights over the fruit of her flesh, which, legally, belong exclusively to the Father . . . the Woman Creator appears today, under the Third Republic, in the country of the Revolution, like the last and most lamentable of slaves!  
Oh, certainly, I do not pretend that all mothers are thus sacrificed and annihilated. I know that there are happy mothers, respected spouses, who in a well-off household have been able to conquer their rightful places; women who do not feel the weight of the “law of man” and of social ignominy. I am not talking here about those women. They need no advocate. It is the others that we are defending – the others who are, alas, the immense majority!” 

Roussel called on the happy mothers to join her in pleading the case of the impoverished and worn-out:

“When, under the white lace-trimmed curtains, you sing a lullaby to your beautiful robust and smiling baby, the baby so ardently desired, and over whom leans the forehead of a well-loved husband, along with your own, you must think – remembering the suffering that this joy cost you – you must think of all those, alas, who have only experienced the suffering and ignored the joy! You must think of those who, up to the last day, dragged their aching bellies through infernal workshops; and who, returning to their lodgings, worn out, had still to serve “their man” – who, one evening of boozing it up, no doubt, fertilized them brutally, without concerning himself about what might ensue. You must think of those women who go, on cold nights, their last-born in their arms, to stalk the exits of the cabarets, anxious, hungry, where their “lords and masters” drinks away the bread meant for the brood. You must think of those sad single mothers [filles mères], who, alone in their attic rooms [mansards], submit without assistance, without help of any kind, without a word of love to console them, without the touch of comforting hands, the excruciating test, while those who seduced them, forgetful, continue, while making new victims, to enjoy peacefully “society’s” esteem. You must think also – since for women, there are no “privileged classes” – of more than one bourgeoise that you have known, of more than one “grande dame” whose story you know; and who, situated between the hell of a conjugal life without esteem or love, and the abandonment of adored children that the law forbids them to take and to keep, have had to suffer in their flesh, in their hearts, and in their pride, all the pains, all the tearing away, all the humiliations!” 

Roussel then enumerated the three transformations that would be required by the feminists to repair the damage done to so many poor mothers and to provide better conditions for the mothers of the future:

“Think of the[se women], happy mothers! And you will understand then why we are “féministes”; and why, among the various moral and social transformations that we have inscribed on our program, there are three that for mothers – your sisters – seem especially desirable.  
“To begin with, the liberty to choose by themselves the moment to accomplish their creative task; the liberty to beg off each time that they judge it prejudicable to their own person, to the family, or to the little being that might be born; -- a liberty that will assure them, for one thing, the respect suggested to a man by a better education and, for another, the Science, distributed to all without parcimony, without reserve, the Benevolent and civilizing Science.  
“Next, recognition of their natural right as mothers, which means, if not a return to the ancient matriachy, at least a rational organization of the family, based not on the uncertainty and ease of paternity, but on a maternity that is all too painfully certain – and meritorious by everything it requires of courage and devotion – giving to the children the name of their mother, and to the mother her prestige and sweet authority.  
“And then, a just salary for noble maternal labor, its assimilation to a social function, the most honored and best remunerated of all. A civilized society owes to itself to show for the Mother, the worker of life, at least as much solicitude as it shows to the Soldier, the worker of death. To keep her, to assure her of the necessary, to offer her a calm and dignified life during all the time she is consecrating to the formation of a citizen, this is a basic duty of the Cité from which it has been freed for all too long.  
“That she understands finally! And from the sacred flanks of the Mother, free, conscious, happy, and glorified, will surge a new and splendid world of joy, strength, and harmony!” 

Clio believes that Nelly Roussel’s message is still a timely one, applicable to many women in our world today. According to her, the key to a new existence would be women’s “right to choose” and to obtain the means to facilitate this choice. These items included, in the short term, reliable birth control as well as economic and legal independence.

Clio’s readers can find much more about Nelly Roussel and her campaigns in the biography by Elinor Accampo, Blessed Motherhood, Bitter Fruit: Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France (2006).

* * * * The first excerpt above (1904) is adapted from the translation by Karen Offen in Women, the Family, and Freedom, vol. 2, pp. 134-136. Originally published in La Fronde, 1 November 1904. The second excerpt (1907), “Pour les Mères,” was originally published in the Almanach féministe, 1907, and reprinted in Nelly Roussel, Quelques lances rompues pour nos libertés (1910), pp. 40-44. Translated Karen Offen. All rights reserved.