chapter  7
22 Pages

Body politics: women, work and the politics of motherhood in France, 1920-1950

In May 1920 the government of the victorious but badly battered French Third Republic, led by premier Alexandre Millerand, celebrated Mother's Day by establishing medals to honour mothers of large families. These medals - bronze for mothers of five living children, silver for mothers of eight, and gold for mothers of ten - were intended to encourage French natalite by publicly rewarding those women who had demonstrated, in the oft-quoted words of Alexandre Dumasfils (in his 1889 play Franpllon), that 'maternity was women's brand of patriotism'.l In July, at the behest of the newly instituted Conseil Superieur de Natalite, the government outlawed antinatalist propaganda (contre La natalite), i.e. propaganda likely to influence and provide information to women. In 1923, it changed the juridical status of abortion, 'decriminalizing' it by transferring jurisdiction from lenient juries to stern judges, and replaced the previous harsh penalties by imprisonment for convicted abortionists as well as for their clients; both measures were intended to assure certainty of punishment.2 In the meantime, the French General Maitrot complained in the Echo de Pans that 'there are too many women typists and civil servants here and not enough meres de famille. With respect to natality, the German mothers have beaten the French mothers; this is Germany's first revenge against France.'3