-8-Abortion and Feminism

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They dubbed her “The Child Killer”. In the backroom of a bistrot in Batignolles Constance Thomas had performed over 2,000 abortions before she was arrested in 1890. Along with this “angel-maker” they summoned 45 women to court: workers, maids, cooks, prostitutes, housewives, milliners, a flower vendor and a bookseller, many of them married and already mothers. They paid between 5 and 50 F to rid themselves of their burdens. Some could only offer a shawl or dress, a pound of sugar or their wedding ring. Officially only three women died in the course of the operation.

When the trial opened in November it was front-page news in all the papers, each participating in the heated debate on one side or another according to its editorial slant. Those calling for a harsh sentence supported the economists and politicians who denounced the crime as a veritable plague against society that was depopulating the nation and depriving it of necessary forces for the next war. With this in mind the government had raised taxes on bachelors, lowered taxes for fathers, made marriage mandatory and tried to enlarge its colonial population (even in the penal colonies). It also encouraged women to stay home and make babies. Abortion, then, was not only illegal, it was unpatriotic.

On the other side, however, the critics of this policy argued the real social causes of abortion. Women were faced with financial ruin if a child came into the world. Families that were barely scraping by could not afford another mouth to feed. Domestic workers would be fired if they had a child. There were also important medical reasons for legalized abortion that some doctors were quick to point out. And the upper classes wanted to avoid scandal, like in the case of Madame de Jonquières whose case had aggravated the issue.

When Constance Thomas, the Child Killer, was arrested, the public was still reeling from scandal of Toulon. Madame de Jonquières, the wife of a naval officer and the mistress of the former mayor of Toulon, was arrested for having aborted the fruit of her extramarital relation. In their privileged milieu they did not have to resort to the backroom of a bar, they paid 800 F for a clean and private operation with a midwife. On top of the abortion she was guilty of adultery, which was illegal, and sentenced to two years in prison. Ex-mayor Fouroux was given five years for complicity in the crimes. It was a tragedy worthy of a novel—with Fouroux’s two other mistresses, one of whom helped find the midwife and the other who turned them all into the police—but it was also an outrageous display of the country’s heinous and hypocritical laws[1]. “Hypocrisy is the thing that disgusts me the most in the world and it is a pleasure to rip off its sweaty mask” (Séverine in L’Eclair, March 23 1893).

With the case of “The Child Killer” and the lower classes, justice was even more heavy-handed. Twelve years of hard labor for Constance Thomas. Séverine was indignant. She had always defended the right to abortion (and the right to suicide as well) against the fetishism of life at any price as can be seen in “The Right to Abortion”, which carried a wave of controversy in its furious wake because Séverine’s stance was rooted deeper than the feminism of the time. Female anarchists sought to emancipate themselves from the role of mother and wife, from their physical and economic dependence on the child and husband. For the most part they went much further than the feminists in their demands regarding the body and sexuality by adding the moral slavery of marriage and prostitution to the material and economic servitude and basing everything on their general resistance to society at large. In short, women’s only hope was in revolution.

Now, Séverine’s feminism was rather unconventional. First of all, she was not a feminist. No one was. The word did not exist until May 1892 when it was invented at the Congrès Général des Sociétés, an international conference, which was organized for women’s rights, the third such congress held since 1878. Séverine had been invited to participate but had declined. Why? Well, it was not the first time she turned down her female peers. Back in August 1885 the Republican and Socialist Federation decided to present female candidates for the legislative elections. They came up with several names included Louis Michel, Marie Deraismes and Séverine. She was flattered but refused, giving three reasons: 1 – She was too much of a woman to do a job that required a more virile female; 2 – She was not and never would be part of any group or organization because she loved her independence too much; 3 – she long ago chose her post in the social struggle and so preferred to stay with the ambulance rather than mount the public platform.

Later we will see how she modified some of these opinions over time: she would join a group and she would speak in public, but she would do so only to support the feminists’ claims for social equality that she was fighting for—the right to work, equal pay for equal work, equal access to scientific and artistic studies, etc. But we will also see one thing she would never compromise: her disdain for the parliamentary system—she would never become a politician.

So, she fought for change in her own way, in her own corner, being the individualist that she was, using her energy and talent as weapons in the service of justice against the powers that be.

 

Next:  The Right to Abortion

[1] Male adultery was only punishable when he was caught at home. A woman’s adultery anywhere could be punished.

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