When 343 French 'Sluts' Fought for Abortion Rights — and Won
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes you have to speak up.
By Fiona Zublin
“I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I have had an abortion.” So signed Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, Agnès Varda and other famous French women, bravely adding their names to the “Manifesto of the 343,” a document that could have led to their prosecution, and that raised the profile of French pro-choice activists.
It was April 1971, and hundreds of French women signed their names, swearing they had sought illegal abortions. The manifesto arguably led to the advent of laws favoring a woman’s right to choose in France — a country that while famously liberal in many ways, has often lagged on women’s rights. French women weren’t allowed to vote until 1944, and while Roe v. Wade gave American women the right to an abortion in 1973, in the early 1970s, French women were still traveling to the U.K. — where abortion was legalized in 1967 — whenever they decided that pregnancy and motherhood wasn’t a viable option.
“There is some disagreement about the value of the manifesto as a strategy for social change,” says Jennifer Sweatman, an assistant professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College. But the fact that the manifesto, and particularly the involvement of intellectual celebrities like de Beauvoir, sparked public debate is undeniable, she admits. Within two years, abortion came up for debate in France’s National Assembly; within four years, it was no longer a crime to have an abortion, until the 10th week of pregnancy.
Women made up 53 percent of France’s voting population in 1974, and socialist candidate François Mitterrand did well to pay heed in that year’s presidential election.
Of course, it didn’t come easily. The manifesto is still widely remembered by the name “Manifesto of the 343 Salopes,” or “343 Sluts.” “When hostile commentators discussed the manifesto,” Sweatman explains, “they said things like ‘Who would have gotten these “sluts” pregnant?’” Two landmark abortion trials in 1972, in Bobigny, a northeastern Parisian suburb, also helped the momentum. In the first case, a teenager who had an abortion after being coerced into sex was put on trial and acquitted; in the second one, four women, including the teenager’s mother from the first case, were put on trial for having helped procure the abortion. The second trial, Sweatman says, brought radical feminist discourse into a public courtroom: Several of the 343, including de Beauvoir, testified about their abortions. Defense attorney Gisèle Halimi, one of the 343 herself and the founder of pro-choice organization Choisir, tried to demonstrate that abortion laws unfairly punished poor women while failing to take into account women’s experiences, lives and rights. In the end, two of the four defendants were found guilty, but their sentences were suspended. A year later, 331 doctors published their own manifesto, saying that they had performed abortions, further fueling debate.
Women made up 53 percent of France’s voting population in 1974, and socialist candidate François Mitterrand did well to pay heed in that year’s presidential election. He promised, if elected, to repeal laws against abortion, and after he won, his health minister, feminist pioneer and politician Simone Veil, put her own name to a law in 1975, giving women the right to an abortion.
“Abortion had been the last major barrier to women’s legal autonomy,” writes Susan K. Foley in Women in France Since 1789. “[Veil’s Law] marked a growing acceptance that women’s autonomy required their control over their reproductive function.” Veil, who had survived the Nazi concentration camps to become a lawyer and political dynamo, is still revered in France: Her recent death, at the age of 89, was swiftly followed by the announcement that she would be interred in the Panthéon, a hallowed Parisian monument that serves as the final resting place of Voltaire, Victor Hugo and other French greats.
The manifesto is still so well-known in France that it has inspired imitators, sometimes unwanted ones. In 2013, 343 men (self-described salauds, or “bastards”) signed a manifesto opposing a crackdown on prostitution, identifying themselves as men who had visited prostitutes. Sweatman notes that salaud and salope have different connotations, much like “bastard” and “slut” do in English, and while the label on the women’s manifesto was meant to call their credibility into question and attack their sexuality, calling someone a salaud, while nominally an insult, mostly celebrates the male signers — among them, notably, politician and accused rapist Dominique Strauss-Kahn — as provocateurs.
But the French minister for women’s rights at the time, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, laid out the difference in stark terms: The 343 salauds were asserting their right to use someone else’s body as they wanted. The 343 salopes were asserting their right to their own bodies.