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  • Female Sterilization and Artificial Insemination at the French Fin de Siècle: Facts and Fictions
  • Michael Finn (bio)

A woman exists only through her ovaries.

—Victor Joze, quoting Dr. Rudolf Virchow1

French anxieties about the country’s low birthrate, predictable and understandable in the years following the military defeat by Prussia in 1870–71, culminated in the 1890s in a reproductive panic triggered by the statistical fact that deaths began to outstrip births. In comparison, statistics appeared to show that the populations of both England and Germany, France’s two main rivals, were reproducing themselves at a satisfactory rate.2 Available to the fin-de-siècle Frenchwoman, as she weighed the prospect of having children or not, were two opposing “reproductive” procedures: a fairly new technique of sterilization involving removal of the ovaries rather than a hysterectomy, and artificial insemination, the latter apparently widely practiced by doctors in what we know today as its “bulb baster” form but very sparsely acknowledged or written about.

Both of these procedures elicited controversy, partly because the social imperative to reproduce was being meddled with, partly because both involved delicate and intimate aspects of a person’s sex life but also partly because both signaled a loss of male power and a diminution of the masculine role.3 The husband’s participation in artificial insemination was, in [End Page 26] the view of many, particularly trivial and laughable, whereas sterilization gave women complete control over their own fertility.

The aim of this essay is to explore contemporary reactions to these two procedures, especially as they affected women and attitudes toward female sexuality, by comparing the medical doxa that developed around each to the literary representation of these medical situations, for indeed, one smaller branch of medically influenced fiction at the fin de siècle, alongside histories of degeneration, flawed heredity, and hysteria, is the novel of problematized reproduction.

Female Castration

One of the points of concern about the French birthrate among pronatalists like Émile Zola, in addition to worries about abortions and infant fatalities resulting from placing children with wet nurses, was the advent in France in about 1882 of a workable medical operation that would remove women’s ovaries. The term ovariotomie, as it was called at that time, first appeared in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie in 1878, although today the only related term one finds in the Nouveau Petit Robert is ovariectomie.4 A Dr. Jules Péan is credited with developing the procedure in France. He seems to have performed the first successful operation very early, in 1864, but the first two operations conducted specifically to end nervous and hysterical symptoms took place in March 1882 and June 1883.5

Between 1882 and 1900 a series of French medical theses analyzed the rationales proposed for the practice of “female castration,” which appears to have grown statistically during this period, and condemned it in harsher and harsher terms. One of the few doctors supportive of ovariectomies felt obliged to state the essential objection to the operation: “Any operation that has as its consequence the nonproduction of a series of human beings will be difficult to accept from a strictly moral and legal point of view.”6 It is certainly this moral view that doctors clung to most, and there is particular horror expressed over the legality of operations in which doctors did not explain to their patients just what the procedure entailed. [End Page 27]

One of the first to write about female sterilization in France was the prophet of degeneracy, Max Nordau, author of the infamous Entartung (Degeneration), published in German in 1892–93 and translated into French in 1893–94. Nordau, who was based in Paris writing literature on travel and social themes at the time, already had a medical degree from the University of Pest but had written a second academic thesis in 1882 entitled “De la castration de la femme” (On Castration in Women) and had, as president of the jury that adjudicated its validity, the famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.7 The study was modest in length, just sixty-four pages, and Nordau in fact pleaded modesty: his aim was simply to...


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