DIGEST January 2024

The wombs of women: crucible of race, capitalism and feminism

Dear readers, let me begin 2024 by wishing you and everyone around the world a peaceful New Year full of happiness, freedom, justice, and democracy. I’m thinking in particular of those who are currently afflicted by violence, war, hatred, famine, disease, displacement, and persecution. My heart goes out especially to the people of Gaza.

After my last article on abortion, I’ve been thinking about why—even though there has been some progress on this front—it remains difficult for many commentators to fully grasp that banning abortion isn’t about concern for babies or fetuses, or about life writ large, but about controlling women’s bodies and lives. Commentators still wonder aloud why the far-right, if it is against abortion, isn’t also for contraception or for better maternity care. You’d think they would have figured it out by now, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Abortion remains a separate issue, a medical or technical issue, instead of an issue of justice and power. How can this be explained and changed?

French journalist and academic Françoise Vergès provides an answer in Le ventre des femmes (The Wombs of Women), published in 2017. She argues that white (in this case, French) feminists fighting for abortion rights never seriously considered the urgent concerns of Black women and women of color, and especially those from former and current French colonial outposts. The result was a deeply truncated vision of what the struggle is actually about.

Vergès grew up on Réunion Island, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean and one of France’s former slave colonies. She is well known for her work on post-colonialism and decolonialism and feminism, and for using short stories about ordinary people to illustrate the contradictions, hypocrisies, and absurdities of state policy regarding the rights of women of color. (In June 2022, I reviewed Vergès’ 2019 book A Decolonial Feminism, where she used the 2018 strike by Black and brown women who clean the Gare du Nord train station in Paris as her starting point for an exploration of what decolonial feminism means.)

In The Wombs, Vergès recounts the story of the thousands of poor Black and brown women who, in the 1960s, were subject to forced abortions and sterilized without their consent by doctors at an orthopedic clinic in Réunion. The clinic misrepresented the procedures as appendectomies and other authorized surgeries, and fraudulently charged them to the government medical assistance program for poor people and to Social Security, which duly reimbursed them. Yet, at the time of most of these events, abortion, sterilization, and contraception were criminal acts in France (the contraceptive pill and IUD were decriminalized in 1967, abortion in 1975, and tubal ligation and vasectomy only in July 2001). As a full-fledged department of France since 1946, Réunion was under the same legal regime as metropolitan France―in theory at least!

Author and academic Françoise Vergès

Despite pressure from state officials to drop their complaints, thirty of these women eventually sued five doctors and a nurse. The 1971 trial was highly publicized across France, and lawyers and journalists from Paris descended upon Réunion to witness it. On appeal, two of the accused were convicted (incidentally, the only two men of color!) but the judge suspended their sentences, letting them go free. In the end, no one was held accountable and the victims received no compensation. David Moreau, the physician who owned the clinic, went on to become mayor of his town as well as a prosperous real estate developer and regional councilor. Réunion was truly the island of Dr. Moreau, quips Vergès.

This blatant contradiction between how laws were applied in metropolitan France and in Réunion was rooted in France’s racist post-colonial policies, argues Vergès: promoting white births in France, while suppressing the births of brown and Black babies in the overseas departments and territories once their bodies were no longer needed in the sugar fields. At the time of the trial, the accused actually invoked the openly anti-natalist state policy in Réunion to explain their conduct: “Social Security [the government reimbursement program for medical care] and the president of the local council gave me the green light to sterilize,” said one of them, Dr Ladjaj, in a letter in Le Monde. He had testified at the trial that “abortion [wa]s the only viable solution to the tragic demographic problem in this French department.”

While the promotion of birth control remained prohibited in France even after the pill was authorized in 1967, a full-scale media barrage was unleashed by state authorities in Réunion beginning in the 1950s to urge local women to have fewer children. Large families were shamed in the media, with “publicity inserts in newspapers [that] would show—against the backdrop of a setting sun—the outline of a lone woman, carrying a baby and followed by eight children, the whole thing summed up by a single word of commentary—an enormous ENOUGH. Everywhere, posters attempted to sell women on the idea of conjugal bliss, picturing a family that conformed to metropolitan expectations. On television, [where] all programming was controlled by the prefecture, roundtables and documentaries relayed the birth control message,” writes Vergès.

ENOUGH, says the poster offering free care at the state-sponsored Réunionnaise Association for Family Counselling (AROF) in the 1960s

To fully understand birth control policies in France’s overseas departments in the 1960s and 1970s, Vergès argues that we have to “take into account the long history of managing women’s wombs in its slaveholding and postslaveholding colonies.” She shows that the wombs of millions of African women were a major source of capital for these colonies, since it was their children who were captured and shipped out of Africa to produce labor, “a first act of dispossession of women’s wombs.” In fact, throughout their history, French slave colonies continued to rely on importation from Africa of this limitless source of labor. In the United States, importation of labor via the transatlantic slave trade was forbidden beginning in 1808; as a result, “local reproduction of enslaved labor was organized on an industrial scale.” The wombs of American enslaved women were managed through rape and violence, writes Vergès, and their children were simply “currency for exchange” traded in US coastal ports. But whatever the strategies used to maintain and grow the enslaved labor force, “they all violently exploited the wombs of Black women.”

Management of Black bodies and of their movement and placement in the colonies was inherent to the institution of slavery, notes Vergès. “Slavery created a double process of mobility and fixity of the labor force. Mobility, institutionalized in the trafficking of Africans and Malagasy [from Madagascar], was accompanied in effect by immobilization, by virtue of a whole series of prohibitions and compulsory orders (bans on free circulation, relegation to certain particular spaces and occupations). Power had to strike the right balance: it disposed of a mass of able bodies that it intended to exploit to the fullest, but at the same time it had to control their numbers so that they never reached a threshold that could threaten the established order. Thus, the creation of legal codes (Black Code, Indian Code, decrees concerning indentured laborers), debates about the number of enslaved, indentured persons, and migrants that could be admitted to a colony, and agreements (and rivalries) among European states.”

At the time slavery was abolished in Réunion in 1848, 62,000 persons were freed. Of these, 31% were women and 69% were men, clearly showing how closely these populations were “managed” to meet the needs of emerging capitalism.

It is not surprising that this way of thinking, this “gendered and racialized international division of labor, organized by the slave trade,” did not end with the abolition of slavery, argues Vergès. After abolition, indentured laborers were brought in from Africa, but also from India and China, to continue working in the fields, with men still vastly outnumbering women. The few indentured women available were bartered amongst the men of their national group, “desired but also rejected for whatever humiliation their scarcity created for men.” Racialized women continued to be subjected to multiple forms of oppression: “To sexism, colonial misogyny, and French cultural patriarchy were added Indian, Chinese, or African male chauvinism and forms of patriarchy.”

The Second World War severely diminished France’s economic and political clout, and challenged its hold on a vast colonial empire. France faced serious demands for change from representatives of its colonies at the 1944 Brazzaville conference of Free France leaders, and General De Gaulle had to grant them concessions to retain their support to win the war, including local elections and the right for native populations to work in the public service in the colonies. For Réunion, the solution was to integrate into France as a DOM, département d’outre-mer or overseas department, in 1946.

As that prospect approached, Vergès recounts how newly elected local representatives of Réunion submitted a report to French administrators on the bleak state of the island after 300 years of French colonization—widespread poverty, terrible state of health care, education, housing, and civil rights—arguing for a more equitable use of farmland, an end to sharecropping and the creation of an export bureau. Economic non-development and non-investment was Paris’ response, i.e. limiting the cost of integrating Réunion into France, while still benefitting from its strategic position in the Indian Ocean. As employment in sugar plantations dropped due to growing mechanization and changing trade relations, the “overpopulation” of Réunion suddenly emerged as a matter of state concern. Paris' solutions: population control, as well as emigration out of Réunion. Vergès notes that the idea of population control as a solution to poverty in the developing world arose at precisely the time when colonialism and imperialism faced some of their greatest challenges. Racialized women's fertility was to blame for poverty, rather than the colonial and imperial regimes that had invested so little in local economies.

Soon, the United States espoused the idea of out-of-control birth rates as an obstacle to development, but US policy went further, writes Vergès, by also characterizing rapid demographic growth in the “Third World” as a global security threat. At the 1974 Bucharest conference on Population, representatives of Western governments expounded those views, while representatives of Algeria and Argentina argued that the opposite was true: that it was poverty that was the cause of high birth rates. Vergès points out that their position was backed by World Health Organization studies, whose research showed that as soon as education and health are improved and autonomy for women increased, birth rates are reduced. “But acknowledging that poverty could not be explained by the birth rate would have led to an analysis of global capitalism, of the power of Northern states over Southern governments, of the nature of racial and national postcolonial patriarchy, and of all the points of intersection among such interests.” Of course, that didn’t happen then—only much later, at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, where feminists from the global South and North organized massively to bring governments to some of those conclusions.

The racial dimensions of France’s overall state population policies were unmistakable if one paid any attention. As the campaign to reduce family size raged on in Réunion, its young people were invited to move to metropolitan France to address its shortage of service workers. In 1962, the Bureau of Migration for the Overseas Departments (BUMIDOM) was created to recruit, train, and place these young DOM (Réunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyana) French citizens in generally low-skilled, low-paying jobs in France that their metropolitan peers no longer wanted to do—in hospitals, nursery schools, hospices or post offices. “The future is elsewhere,” went the slogan. Most of those recruited were young Réunionnaise women, who were preferred for caregiving jobs.

Meanwhile, and at exactly the same time, France was encouraging more desirable white French citizens to move to the DOMs to take up jobs in the civil service. “The 1960s saw a parallel movement, quite similar to the contradiction of state birth control policies—pushing the residents of DOMS to leave, on the one hand, and inviting French people from the Hexagon [the shape of European France is a hexagon] to come here, on the other.” The latter soon began arriving in Réunion “by the thousands, as the government responded to the lack of teachers, doctors and administrators—to the need for civil servants, in other words—by inviting French people to the overseas territories rather than training people locally.” These settlers, dubbed “zoreys” (ears, in Creole), had (and still have) privileged status in the DOMs by virtue of their race, education and connections to metropolitan France, often occupied high positions, and enjoyed much better living standards than local Réunionnais, with comfortable houses maintained by maids and housekeepers. They were “convinced of their status as bearers of the progressive ideas of an old civilization,” writes Vergès. Yet, the “colonial lexicon was at [their] disposal as justification for [their] rapid ascent: a lazy, incompetent population, incapable of embodying the universal, and stuck in ‘localism.’”

In a particularly perverse twist to its racist and sexist population management policies in Réunion, the French Government even decided to grab poor Réunionnais children from their families and send them to underpopulated regions of France. As a Canadian ashamed of my government’s previous policy of ripping Indigenous youth from their families to send them to residential schools in the south of the country, this sounds all too familiar. Between 1963 and 1982, 2,150 children aged 8 months to 12 years were literally kidnapped, no matter what their parents said, and sent to French families living in remote areas of metropolitan France; there, many of them were exploited for their labor, rejected by the host families and abandoned in homeless shelters, and subject to sexual and physical violence. Several ended their lives by suicide. The “children of the Creuse” (the isolated region of France where many of the children were sent) and their families have yet to receive any compensation. So far, the French National Assembly has only managed to pass a resolution to recognize France’s “moral responsibility” for these abuses.

Vergès concludes her analysis of these extraordinary and shocking events by wondering why French feminists, in their quest for the right to abortion and contraception in the 1960s and 1970s, never took up the cause of the 30 courageous women who sued the doctors and nurse for forced abortion and sterilization. They were certainly aware of the trial: the famous Manifesto of the 343 French women who declared: “I had an abortion,” issued in April 1971, closely followed the highly publicized verdict of the court of appeals in the Réunion case in March 1971. The French feminist movement, “radical in both its discourse and in its practices, [the movement that] shook up the male chauvinism of politics in the revolutionary Far Left, managed to ignore concrete events that would have illuminated the racial dimensions of patriarchy, state politics and feminism in France.”

Vergès doesn’t settle on a definitive explanation, but she considers the possibility that for many feminists deeply ashamed of French foreign policy and military and police actions during the Algerian War, it was a psychic relief to retreat into metropolitan France after Algerian independence in 1962. “French feminists”, Vergès writes, “once again could be victims of patriarchy without having to consider its racial dimensions. Patriarch could be universal—the same everywhere.”

They certainly retreated. It’s frankly astounding today to hear the words of the 1971 anthem of the MLF, the French Women’s Liberation Movement: “We who have no past, women/We who are without history/Since the dawn of time/Women are the Dark Continent/Let us rise up, enslaved women and break our chains/Stand up, stand up, stand up!” For white French feminists to sing that they are as oppressed as enslaved Africans demonstrates their failure to analyze the difficult situation of racialized women anywhere, including in France’s former slave colonies, along with their own privileged status. “By neglecting the fact that slavery and colonialism had been beneficial to white supremacy and thus to white women, 1970s feminism, even at its most radical, contributed to the separation of the struggles that mattered, from those that did not matter at all,” writes Vergès.

The anthem of the French Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF), comparing French women to African slaves and to the “Dark Continent”

I also think, although Vergès doesn’t say so explicitly, that white French feminists, who were generally not subjected to forced procedures (unless they had a disability), conceptualized the issue of abortion only as a question of access—"the right to,” but not “the right not to.” Raising the question of forced abortions would muddy their claim. This was certainly also the case in the US, where white feminists at the time (and still today in some cases) argued for abortion as a choice to access the procedure, without much consideration of the conditions required for that access to be possible, and even less thinking about the forced sterilizations endured by Black and indigenous women. From the 1990s onwards, Black US feminists successfully challenged that narrow approach through the concept of “reproductive justice.” It has yet to make the same inroads in France, despite the brilliant advocacy of racialized feminists like Rokhaya Diallo.

The universalist thinking of the MLF feminists (“all women”) was shaped by the universalist thinking of the political Left (“all workers”), notes Vergès. Neither of these related political movements questioned their lack of analysis of racism and colonialism. This was all the more remarkable given the abundant activism of prominent anti-colonialists and anti-racists at the time, who published letters, books, articles and made movies that feminists and leftists should have been aware of. Very well-known writers like Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Aimé Césaire (Discourse on colonialism) and Françoise Ega (Letter to a Black Woman: A Caribbean Tale), or filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene (The girl from…) and Sarah Maldoror (Monangambé). Even the 1983 publication in French of Angela Davis’ classic Women, Race, and Class, in which Davis highlighted the racist blind spots of North American feminists, did nothing to change the MLF’s approach. “White women, it seemed, escaped racial identification,” writes Vergès. “Yet to be a white woman is to be racialized, and to pass as a white woman affords many privileges.”

The result is a feminism that claims to be universal but ends up being reactionary or “femo-nationalist”, writes Vergès, that is, enmeshed with the idea of France as a beacon of Enlightenment, and since the late 1990s, with “parity” (formal equality with men) and secularism as overarching feminist values—rather than equity, justice or freedom.

If these feminists had integrated France’s colonial history and its current colonial reality into their thinking, their activism would have claimed not only the right to abort, but also the right not to abort, as Réunion activists demanded. They would have argued for the right not to have children, and also the right to have the children they wanted, when they wanted to have them, and to raise them in a safe and nurturing environment. If they had paid attention to the trial launched by the 30 Réunionnaises and to the tragedy of the children of the Creuse ripped from their mothers, these feminists would have understood and argued that, through measures targeting abortion and the population at large, what right-wing actors really want is to control women’s bodies and (re)establish or reinforce a white, hetero-normative, cisgender, patriarchal, and authoritarian order.

Réunionnais marching for women’s rights on March 8, 2017

While reading The Wombs, I was surprised to learn that Michel Debré, a former center-right French Prime Minister under De Gaulle, was a member of the French National Assembly for Réunion from 1963 to 1988, despite having barely visited the island before being elected for the first time. I knew Debré for his virulent speeches (“I am scandalized!” was his opening line), opposing the decriminalization of abortion in France in 1974 in the French National Assembly, when the bill was being debated. Yet this was the same Debré who put enormous pressure on all state bodies in Réunion to achieve his goals of combatting the island’s “overpopulation.” It was under his watch that the children of the Creuse were shipped to families and organizations in France to remedy the shortage of labor, and that BUMIDOM was created to incite Réunionnais to move to metropolitan France for similar reasons. In his Politique pour la Réunion (A Political Plan for Réunion), issued in 1974, Debré was very clear about the origins of the problem: “From the beginnings of colonization, Réunionese women have had children without restraint. And let us not forget the natural uninhibitedness of Creoles when it comes to sexuality.” Whew. Yes, it’s really about control of women’s bodies.

“I’m ashamed, I’m scandalized!” cried Michel Debré in the National Assembly in 1974 during the debate on the abortion bill. He wasn’t as ashamed or scandalized by the thousands of forced abortions in Réunion

A poster of Debré with Réunionnais children in the 1960s. He certainly had “plans” for their future

Vergès’ case study of French policy in Réunion clearly demonstrates—and it seems that we still need such demonstration—that feminist movements must be rooted in the struggles of Black and brown people, and especially those most marginalized and subjected to colonial and postcolonial regimes. Without this solidarity and analysis, struggles for access to abortion remain isolated, rather than being understood as part of a broader project of liberation and justice.

In decolonial solidarity,