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Blessed Motherhood, Bitter Fruit

Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France

Elinor Accampo

Publication Year: 2006

Nelly Roussel (1878–1922)—the first feminist spokeswoman for birth control in Europe—challenged both the men of early twentieth-century France, who sought to preserve the status quo, and the women who aimed to change it. She delivered her messages through public lectures, journalism, and theater, dazzling audiences with her beauty, intelligence, and disarming wit. She did so within the context of a national depopulation crisis caused by the confluence of low birth rates, the rise of international tensions, and the tragedy of the First World War. While her support spread across social classes, strong political resistance to her message revealed deeply conservative precepts about gender which were grounded in French identity itself. In this thoughtful and provocative study, Elinor Accampo follows Roussel's life from her youth, marriage, speaking career, motherhood, and political activism to her decline and death from tuberculosis in the years following World War I. She tells the story of a woman whose life and work spanned a historical moment when womanhood was being redefined by the acceptance of a woman's sexuality as distinct from her biological, reproductive role—a development that is still causing controversy today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication Page

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

The research for this book began with a different project in mind. After having studied French fertility decline in the nineteenth century among the working classes, I wanted to find out more about what the French were thinking when they had small families. I began researching the neo-Malthusian (French birth control) movement in the hope of learning what male, and especially female, proponents...

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pp. 1-12

As a feminist, advocate of birth control, journalist, and public speaker, Nelly Roussel (1878–1922) would have fitted the “second-wave” feminism of the 1970s better than she did her own time. Roussel argued that women have the right to pursue self-fulfillment—happiness as individuals—regardless of their social, marital, or maternal status, and that they also have the right to avoid pain. These ideas may not seem...

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1. Conversion Experiences

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pp. 13-34

Nelly Roussel was born on January 5, 1878, into a France that was sharply polarized between the heirs of the Revolution of 1789 and those of the counter-revolution. On one side stood republicans who welcomed the new possibilities offered by science and modernization, embraced egalitarianism in civic life, in principle, if not in the practice, and viewed the Catholic Church as their enemy. On the other stood moral...

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2. Mother and Missionary: The Ideological Foundations of an Unorthodox Feminism

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pp. 35-69

In my confinement, strengthen my heart to endure the pains that come therewith, and let me accept them as the consequence of your judgement upon our sex, for the sin of the first woman. In view of that curse, and of my own offences in marriage, may I suffer the cruelest pangs with joy, and may I join them with the suffering of your Son upon the cross, in the midst of which He engendered me into eternal life. Never can they be as harsh as I deserve, for although holy matrimony has made my conception legitimate, I confess that concupiscence mingled its venom therewith and that...

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3. The Making and Marketing of a Spectacular Apostle

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pp. 70-98

Roussel’s activities from the fall of 1902 through the spring of 1904 suggest that she had fully recovered both her mental and physical health. In addition to lecturing, writing, and performing Par la révolte, she contributed articles to La Fronde, L’Action, Régénération, and other newspapers. By the spring of 1904, she had taken up myriad other activities: on Mondays, she attended a course at the...

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4. The Public and Private Politics of Female Self-Sacrifice: Audience Reception

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pp. 99-134

On a Saturday evening, January 20, 1906, 400 people crammed into the overflowing Maison du Peuple hall in Caen (Calvados). The city’s residents had never before seen a female speaker, let alone heard a lecture on feminism. Nelly Roussel was supposed to appear at 8:30 p.m., but she walked in forty-five minutes late, which proved to at least one observer that “even as a feminist, she remained...

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5. Pathologies and Persecutions

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pp. 135-170

After sifting through and cataloguing hundreds of letters written by French feminist women who were Roussel’s contemporaries, Maïté Albistur wrote that the major event of their daily lives was their suffering bodies: “Their complaints, which run through all [social] classes and upset those in all conditions, fill their correspondence, transpire in each document”; their bodies, moreover, became a...

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6. The Great War: Pacifism, Censorship, and the Disease of a "Weary, Wounded Heart"

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pp. 171-204

One of the enduring questions in feminist historiography is whether the Great War, in its destruction of traditional modes of thinking and in the creation of new occupational opportunities, advanced women’s status. Even if we set aside the matter of her health, the war did not offer Roussel emancipation, at least not in the ways most important to her. It completely silenced the already persecuted...

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7. Last Battles: Words of Combat, Hope, and Pain

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pp. 205-238

After the family’s return to Paris, Henri settled back into his office near the place de la République and his partnership with Del Pozo in the sale of engineering supplies. Mireille, who had turned nineteen by the war’s end, moved back in with the Montupets. Without explanation (at least in Roussel’s archive), she terminated her studies and abandoned her goal of teaching philosophy. Godet...

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pp. 239-250

Mireille returned to Paris in March 1923, three months after her mother’s death. She was twenty-three and uncertain about her future. Having decisively informed her father that she would not return to work as his secretary, she instead became a teacher with the educational program founded after the war by Roussel’s close friend Germaine Lambert, L’Enfance heureuse (Happy Childhood).


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pp. 251-289


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pp. 291-302


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pp. 303-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780801888960
E-ISBN-10: 0801888964
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801884047
Print-ISBN-10: 0801884047

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 17 halftones, 4 line drawings
Publication Year: 2006