One of the first prominent birth control advocates in France, Nelly Roussel (1878-1922) was an active member in anarchist feminist groups of the late Third Republic. Raised in a Catholic family and educated until age 15, Roussel married the sculptor Henri Godet at the age of 20 and quickly entered public life, organizing conferences, acting in plays, and speaking publicly about women’s issues. Roussel advocated for wider access to birth control for French women, adhering to the neo-Malthusian philosophy of the time which proposed that artificially controlling the French population would lead to a more healthy society with happier parents, reduced poverty, and fewer natural disasters. Her main focus was on women’s health, advocating for pain control during childbirth and free access to birth control as a way of preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Roussel’s speeches and letters revolved around the idea that women had the right to fulfillment and a pain-free life, regardless of their social or marital status, an idea which made her a radical among her contemporaries. She drew connections between women’s healthcare and emancipation, and was one of the first to suggest that a woman’s control over her own body was closely intertwined with her political citizenship. Her ideas went far beyond the doctrine of most of her feminist contemporaries in that the very idea of women’s bodily autonomy was destructive to the structure of the Third Republic. Roussel was close with other anarchist feminist contemporaries, including Louise Michel, and continued to be an outspoken advocate for women’s rights until her death in 1922. Today, Roussel’s papers are held at the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand.
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