Elinor Accampo, Blessed Motherhood, Bitter Fruit: Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France

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Elinor Accampo, Blessed Motherhood, Bitter Fruit: Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

In the introduction to her 1991 study of medieval piety and gender, Caroline Bynum states that "However we construct it and whatever it stands to us, body is what we've got ... All evidence for the doing of history opens out beyond itself to an intractable physicality." (1) Elinor Accampo's elegant study of Nelly Roussel (1878-1922), the turn-of-the-century French feminist and birth control advocate, confronts this "intractable physicality" and indeed makes it the red thread of her analysis. The historically-specific pains and pleasures of the turn-of-the-century female body provide the connective tissue for a sweeping study that takes in the complexities of feminist action, republican politics, medical science, and gender and family relations in France.

By the end of the nineteenth century, family size in France was steadily declining, primarily through the use of natural family planning. Accampo builds her study then upon a two-pronged question: given that family size was declining, why did Roussel and others in the birth control movement feel such a forceful need to preach to the converted, and why did opponents consider their message so destructive to the fabric of French society? Accampo answers that debates about birth control were not entirely about family limitation, but also were about female sexuality. For this was, Accampo argues, "a remarkable historical moment in which female sexuality began to be separated from reproduction," and became "a legitimate part of a woman's identity" (12).

The study begins with an examination of Roussel's youth, from her birth through her marriage to the sculptor and freethinker Henri Godet. Born to a respectable bourgeois Catholic family, Roussel had a childhood which mixed in equal parts conventional notions about feminine sacrifice with an independent, even theatrical disposition. During her courtship with Godet in the late 1890s, Roussel discovered the Parisian circles of Freemasonry and Freethinking, honing her interest in the plight of women and beginning her career as a public speaker at the universites populaires.

Here, Roussel's physical body makes its first dramatic appearance in the history of French neo-Malthusianism. When she discovered in the spring of 1899 that she was pregnant and obliged to curtail her burgeoning public speaking career, Roussel felt a powerful "dread" of the impending birth as well as a sense of revolt against the loss of self that accompanied childrearing and the social imperatives that demanded such sacrifice from women, what she called "the long slavery" (30). Accampo interlaces Roussel's personal ruminations on pregnancy with discussions of the real dangers of childbirth at the turn of the century and the powerful Christian and secular discourses on motherhood that justified and even elevated maternal pain.

In no small part, the experience of pregnancy and motherhood moved Roussel toward the neo-Malthusian movement of Paul Robin. As a fiery advocate of limited family size and birth control, Roussel developed a radical program which interrogated "the very nature of womanhood as her contemporaries understood it" (48). She questioned the deep-rooted assumption, in both Catholic and secular circles, that childbirth and its consequent pains were a necessary, even formative, part of womanhood. Indeed, she "laid bare the stubborn persistence of the 'eternal feminine' and the notion of an eternally self-sacrificing womanhood in French imaginations across the political spectrum" (244). In her dramatic lectures and morality plays, Roussel evoked the physical pain of childbirth, and claimed a radical right for women "to love without fear." What made Roussel's message so troubling to many on the Left and Right was not only her insistence that women have control of their reproduction, but her avowal that women have a "capacity for sexual pleasure" and a "potential for sexual independence" (117). …