Roussel, Nelly

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ROUSSEL, NELLY (1878–1922), French feminist.

Feminist, advocate of birth control, and pacifist, Frenchwoman Nelly Roussel disseminated her various doctrines through public speaking, journalism, and acting. She dazzled her audiences with her stunning beauty, charismatic speaking style, powerful logic, and disarming wit. One of her friends accurately labeled her a "contemporary of the future"; far more modern than feminists of her era, Roussel anticipated "second-wave" feminism of the 1970s in claiming for women the right to have complete control over their own bodies. She devoted her career to transforming attitudes about female pain, especially in childbirth, by seeking to dislodge both religious and secular beliefs that pain in labor was the necessary and redemptive consequence of female sexuality. Roussel insisted that women should be able to free themselves of pain through birth control and medicalized childbirth. She linked sovereignty over one's own body to the potential for full human development and to the capacity for citizenship at a time when women were still denied civil and political rights. Full self-possession also meant the right to sexual pleasure as an end in itself.

Born into a bourgeois Parisian family and raised a devout Catholic, Roussel felt the injustice of sexual inequality by the time she was a teenager because she was prohibited from continuing her education and pursuing an acting career. At age twenty, she married Henri Godet, a sculptor, freethinker, and feminist. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. Roussel's painful experiences with childbirth further committed her to emancipating women from repeated and unwanted pregnancies. Over the course of her career, she traveled alone by train throughout France and five other European countries where she presented almost 250 lectures, often to audiences that numbered more than two thousand. She also wrote, performed, and sold several allegorical plays, one of which was translated into Russian and Portuguese. Her reach extended beyond the tens of thousands who heard her speak; forty-six Parisian and provincial newspapers summarized her lectures and published more than two hundred articles she wrote.

Most feminists of Roussel's era did not believe female sexual pleasure to be an important element of feminine identity. Moreover, they thought the separation of sexuality from reproduction would render women sexual objects and deprive motherhood of dignity. Roussel also differed from most other feminists because she made a deliberate effort to reach working-class women, and traveled into the provinces to do so. In observing the material conditions of their lives, and particularly those of single mothers, Roussel argued that maternal labor, "like other work, and even more than other work … [should] ensure the independence and the well-being of all those who perform it, [but it] has so far been only a source of slavery and inferiority! … Of all the social functions, the … most magnificent, most painful, and the most necessary is the only one which has never received wages" ("She Who Is Always Sacrificed," pp. 23–24). She demanded that women be paid for their maternal labor and called for a "strike of wombs."

Roussel's speaking and writing career slowed after 1910 as she suffered increasingly poor health. She died from tuberculosis in 1922, shortly before her forty-fifth birthday. It was not only her health, however, that slowed her public career. Her views caused particular controversy in France because of the nation's sharp decline in birthrates, a demographic phenomenon that had ominous implications for military strength at a time of growing international tensions. Thus she was considered by many to be not only immoral but also unpatriotic and even treasonous in advocating women's right to contraception. In reaction to the campaign for birth control, as well as to the huge population losses suffered in World War I, the National Assembly passed a law in 1920 that prohibited the advertisement, sale, and public discussion of all birth control (except condoms to prevent venereal disease) and stiffened penalties for abortion. Even prior to the passage of this law—which remained in place until 1967—the political climate in pre–World War I France prevented Roussel from gaining a large following and certainly made institutional support impossible.

But Roussel did win the hearts and minds of numerous individuals who heard her speak or who read her published lectures and plays. Some of them—especially her daughter, Mireille Godet—kept her memory alive. Evidence suggests Roussel influenced the thinking of Simone de Beauvoir, who developed similar views about women and motherhood. Moreover, Roussel helped force public attention to the plight of mothers, a cause that mainstream feminists fully adopted and that ultimately resulted in government-sponsored child care and family allocations.

See alsoFeminism.


Primary Sources

Roussel, Nelly. "She Who Is Always Sacrificed," "The Freedom of Motherhood," and "Let Us Create the Female Citizen." In Feminisms of the Belle Epoque: A Historical and Literary Anthology, edited by Jennifer Waelti-Walters and Steven C. Hause, 18–41, 242–251, and 278–291. Lincoln, Nebr., 1994.

Secondary Sources

Accampo, Elinor A. "The Rhetoric of Reproduction and the Reconfiguration of Womanhood in the French Birth Control Movement, 1890–1920." Journal of Family History: Studies in Family, Kinship, and Demography 21, no. 3 (1996): 351–371.

——. "Private Life, Public Image: Motherhood and Militancy in the Self-Construction of Nelly Roussel, 1900–1922." In The New Biography: Performing Femininity in Nineteenth-Century France, edited by Jo Burr Margadant, 218–261. Berkeley, Calif., 2000.

——. Blessed Motherhood, Bitter Fruit: Nelly Roussel and the Politics of Female Pain in Third Republic France. Baltimore, Md., 2006.

Albistur, Maïté, and Daniel Armogathe. Preface, notes, and commentaries to L'éternelle sacrifiée, by Nelly Roussel. Paris, 1979.

Cova, Anne. "Féminisme et natalité: Nelly Roussel (1878–1922)." History of European Ideas 15, nos. 4–6 (1992): 663–672.

Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'égalité enmarche: Le féminisme sous la Troisiéme Rèpubliique. Paris, 1989.

Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 1700–1950: A Political History. Stanford, Calif., 2000.

Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, and Steven C. Hause, eds. Feminisms of the Belle Epoque: A Historical and Literary Anthology. Translated by Jennifer Waelti-Walters, Jette Kjaer, and Lydia Willis. Lincoln, Nebr., 1994.

Elinor Accampo