- Women and Birth Control in Eighteenth-Century France1
Among representatives of the “fair sex,” writing and publishing in the eighteenth century remained the privilege of a very small elite. Of these women, thirty or so contributed to the literature dealing with economics and demographics, thereby constituting a body of highly original texts. 2 Indeed, by comparing the most commonly addressed themes of the period, one discovers that women had a significant interest in population problems; such is the case of twenty-one out of the thirty. Their favorite domain corresponded to a vast field identified at the time as “social mores,” including, among other subjects, the study of society and the manners and morals of their contemporaries. Some of these women authors participated in the prominent debate on luxury, as luxury, because of its perceived corrupting effects, often referred back to the specter of depopulation. But, more often, female authors studied the respective merits of marriage, celibacy, adultery, maternity, and the education of children. Very sensitive to the feminine condition, the most audacious among them rebelled against the unequal division of labor between the sexes, while the more moderate called for improvements in the female condition.
Few women embraced literary careers in the Enlightenment. In order to brave the prejudices that opposed their intellectual ambitions, women needed both to come from privileged backgrounds and to live in Paris. Among the twenty-one authors of this study, the majority meet these two criteria. Mingling with literary persons, scholars, administrators, or having married one, as Mme Necker did, these authors give important insights into the events of their time and contemporary literary culture. Diderot regularly called on Mme de Puisieux for five years. Mme Le Rebours received d’Alembert, Dupont de Nemours, and, most importantly, Rousseau, who encouraged her to publish her views on breast-feeding. Their personal experience as wives and mothers had an equally relevant influence on their reflections. Sixteen of the twenty-one were married. Unfortunately, the number of children they gave birth to, with rare exception, cannot be rigorously established. But it appears that none of them headed large families. The proportion of single women among them is relatively high, which is intimately connected to their vocations as female writers. Even their married colleagues often waited for widowhood before taking up the pen.
Taking into account that in France legitimate birthrates dropped slightly after 1740, more noticeably after 1770, and then in a most dramatic way at the end of the century, and that this lower fertility rate is linked for the most part to the advent of voluntary birth control, it seems particularly interesting to analyze texts published at the time by women, in order to understand more fully the evolution in demographic behavior at that turning point. 3 The validity of the information they give on birth control is difficult to pinpoint. Like all authors of the time, they rarely cite their sources. It is often impossible to determine if their insights are based on observation or if they rely solely on “common sense.” However, several women mention in passing the texts they had in hand. Some of them had access to specialized publications. Mme de Puisieux alludes to “works on population” by one of the “most respected men,” most likely the Marquis de Mirabeau. 4 In the end, the writings of female authors testify to the state of well-born women in the eighteenth century. Recall that these texts were written to be published. One cannot expect the lack of embellishment one finds in the advice Mme de Sévigné gave her daughter at the end of the previous century in their private correspondence. The texts analyzed in the following pages concentrate on four principal themes: the diminishing number of children brought into the world by contemporaries in certain social strata; the perverse effects of the institution of marriage; pregnancy and the risks it entailed for women’s health; and lastly, the definition of the mother’s role and the priority motherhood took in women’s lives. 5
The Drop in the Birthrate and Birth Control
The belief that France’s population was decreasing was widespread...