Telling Tales: Hidden Knowledge and Denunciation in French Abortion and Infanticide Cases, 1900–40

Friday, January 8, 2016: 9:10 AM
Room M101 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Karen E. Huber, Wesleyan College
The French have a long history both of flaunting laws they believe to be silly or contrary to individual interest, and of viciously (and usually anonymously) denouncing friends and neighbors who had done so. Scholars have mainly studied the role of denunciation in France in the tumult of the French Revolution of the late-eighteenth century and the Vichy Regime of World War II.  Building on this historiography, this paper turns to the first part of the twentieth century, a period marked by strong pro-natalist policies, best displayed in the Law of July 31, 1920.  This law made even sharing information about contraception or abortion illegal, and left ordinary sexually-active women with no legal means to avoid pregnancy.  In this atmosphere of hidden knowledge, women’s informal networks of information and support became essential, but also left pregnant women vulnerable to denunciation.

How did French women facing undesired pregnancies use these informal networks to access illegal information about alternatives to motherhood, including contraception, abortion, and places where one could secretly give birth?  How and why did friends, neighbors, or rivals decide to denounce these women to police?  Drawing on judicial archives, including women’s interrogations and confessions, as well as on pro-natalist publications and media coverage of abortion and contraception, this paper examines these networks as a tool for spreading hidden and often illegal knowledge about reproductive options among ordinary women in France’s countryside and regional city centers.  Looking specifically at the largely rural areas surrounding Rennes, in Brittany, and the primarily urban areas near the city of Lyon, this paper asks how women shared forbidden knowledge about sex, contraception, and abortion, and why they were denounced.

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