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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.4 (2005) 415-432

"Your body is yours":
Anarchism, Birth Control, and Eugenics in Interwar France
Richard Sonn
University of Arkansas

Eugenics in the interwar period (1918–39) is generally associated with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, though interest in preventing the "unfit" from breeding also reached a peak in the United States in these same years. 1 Most French leaders, by contrast, evinced much less interest in controlling or limiting births than in increasing the quantity of French people. 2 The Third Republic in France supported pronatalist policies, and a host of organizations rallied to the cause of the large family. While many of these French profamily organizations were Catholic, Radicals and even Socialists as well as politicians on the Right were generally united in encouraging population growth. 3 That left the extreme Left to battle for birth control and to advocate for demographic quality over quantity, especially a higher quality of life for the working classes. At the forefront [End Page 415] of that struggle were the anarchists, who had been identified with neo-Malthusianism and its emphasis on birth control since the 1890s. 4 As a logical extension of this demand for control over reproduction and for quality of life over population growth, some anarchists began to advocate negative eugenics in the interwar era, arguing that alcoholics, diseased, and other "unfit" people should refrain from having children, alongside their emphasis on positive eugenics, which encouraged allegedly superior people to bear more children. This dual regulation of population was to be done not for the good of the state, as in Fascist regimes, but for a healthier and self-regulating working class.

The interwar era has been relatively neglected by historians of the French birth control movement, in part because of the wave of repression visited on the movement in the 1920s, after the Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed the law of 31 July 1920 outlawing all information pertaining to birth control and abortion. In 1923 antiabortion laws were further strengthened, with four-year sentences for abortionists and six months for women undergoing an abortion. Numerous condemnations followed both laws, with the 1920 law resulting in fifty-nine prison terms by May 1923. The leftist coalition called the Cartel des gauches, voted into power in 1924, did nothing to abrogate these laws, which had passed in 1920 by the commanding margin of 521 to 55. 5 The "politics of motherhood" that identified family and maternity with the good of the nation dominated nearly all political factions. 6 Despite the assumption that the cause of birth control had been defeated or at least put on hold, anarchists remained committed to the ideal, and even extended it to advocating for improving the fitness of the population through the positive effects of sunshine and outdoor activities as well as the negative ones of family limitation.

All birth control advocates and neo-Malthusians were not anarchists, and, as we shall see, not all anarchists were enthusiastic about biological and [End Page 416] demographic issues. Yet there were good reasons why anarchists played a leading role in promoting the discourse on eugenics from the 1890s through the 1930s. The Third French Republic, which lasted from 1870 until 1940, was quite literally defined by three wars with Germany (1870–71, 1914–18, and 1940), all of which reinforced the dominant sentiment that France was endangered by its lower population and slower rate of growth vis-à-vis its Teutonic neighbor. On this issue as on few others, liberal republicans and Catholic traditionalists agreed. One striking example of this agreement can be seen in Émile Zola's 1899 novel Fécondité. For the sake of the patrie (fatherland), the Naturalist writer called for family values and motherhood to trump attitudes of selfish pleasure. Earlier in the decade Zola had written novels satirizing the pilgrimage to Lourdes and imagining anarchists blowing up the new Sacré Coeur cathedral, so he was hardly known for his pro-Catholic bias...


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