the formation of a multinational working class has its origins in the history of women as a section of the class. Women began, particularly since the war, to take their own direction in an increasingly homogeneous and diffuse way. Hence, the emergence of a new quality of political power, as expressed by this class, has to be attributed to, and defined in terms of the new processes of autonomy opened up within the class by its various sections and particularly by woman.
Above all by women’s refusal to procreate.
During the second half of the Sixties, all European coun- tries registered a dramatic fall in the birth rate8 that cannot be wholly attributed to the increased availability of contraceptives.9 The birth rate fell particularly steeply among those sectors that formerly had proved to be less successful in controlling their fertility10
Women were better able to reject State controls over procreation the more they resisted pressure from within the family, from the elderly, from husbands, from other children.
This rejection and resistance can be found to a greater or lesser degree in all countries irrespective of whether the number of women in waged work is high or low, whether the country is one of immigration or emigration and whether the women are “native” or immigrants themselves.
Thus the family, the centre of unpaid work and personal dependence, has emerged as the primary terrain on which women have managed to resist and to organize themselves at a mass level.
The more women succeed in freeing themselves from the constraints of the family the more they will be able to succeed in emancipating themselves from conditions that limit their ability to improve their lives.
Mariarosa DALLA COSTA, “reproduction and emigration”
The criminalization of women’s control over procreation is a phenomenon whose importance cannot be overemphasized, both from the viewpoint or its effects on women and its consequences for the capitalist organization of work. As is well documented through the Middle Ages women had possessed many means of contraception, mostly consisting of herbs which turned into potions and “pessaries” (suppositories) were used to quicken a woman’s period, provoke an abortion, or create a condition of sterility. In Eve’s herbs : A History of contraception in the West (1997), the American historian John Riddle has given us an extensive catalogue of the substances that were most used and the effects expected of them or most likely to occur. The criminalization of contraception expropriated women from this knowledge that had been transmitted from generation to generation, giving them some autonomy with respect to child-birth. It appears that, in some cases, this knowledge was not lost but was only driven underground; yet when birth control again made its appearance on the social scene, contraceptive methods were no longer of the type that women could use, but were specifically created for use by men. What demographic consequences followed from this shift is a question that for the moment I will not pursue, though f refer to Riddle’s work for a discussion oft this matter. Here I only want to stress that by denying women control over their bodies, the
state deprived them of the most fundamental condition for physical and psychological integrity and degraded maternity to the status of forced labor, in addiction to confining women to reproductive work in a way unknown in previous societies. Nevertheless, forcing women to procreate against their will or (as a feminist song from the 1970. had it) forcing them to ” produce children for the state,”62 only in part defined women’s function in the new sexual division of labor. A complementary aspect was the definition of women as non-workers, a process much studied by feminist historians, which by the enf of the 17th century was nearly completed.
As Eli Hecksher noted, “an almost fanatical desire to increase population prevailed in all countries during the period when mercantilism was at its height, in the later of the 17,h century” (Heckscher 1 966: 158). Along with it, a new concept of human
beings also took hold, picturing them as just raw materials, workers and breeders for the state (Spengler 1965: 8). But even prior to the heyday of mercantile theory, in France and England the state adopted a set of pro-natalist measures that, combined with Public:
Relief, formed the embryo of a capitalist reproductive policy. Laws were passed that put a premium on marriage and penalized celibacy, modeled on those adopted by the Roman Empire for tills purpose. The family was given a new importance as the key institution providing for the transmission of property and the reproduction of the work-force. Simultaneously, we have the beginning of demographic recording and the intervention of the state in the supervision of sexuality, procreation, and family life.
But the main initiative that the state cook to restore the desired population was the launching of a true war against women clearly aimed at breaking the control they had exercised over their bodies and reproduction. As we will see later in this volume, this war was waged primarily through the witch-hunt that literally demonized
form of birth-control and non-procreative sexuality, while charging women with sacrificing children to the devil. But it also relied on the redefinition of what constitutes reproductive crime. Thus, starting in the mid-16th century. while Portuguese ships were
returning from Africa with their first human cargoes, all the European governments began to impose the severest penalties against contraception, abortion and infanticide.
This last practice had been treated with some leniency in the Middle Ages, at in the case of poor women; but now it was turned into a capital crime, and punished more harshly than the majority of male crimes.
« In sixteenth century Nuremberg, the penalty for maternal infanticide
was drowning; in 1 580, the year in which the severed heads of three
women convicted of maternal infanticide were nailed to the scaffold
for public contemplation, the penalty was changed to beheading (King 1 991: 10).60
New forms of surveillance were also adopted to ensure that pregnant women did not terminate their pregnancies. In France, a royal edict of1556 required women to register every pregnancy, and sentenced to death those whose infants died before after a concealed delivery, whether or not proven guilty of any wrongdoing. Statutes were passed in England and Scotland in 1624 and 1690. A system of spies also created to surveil unwed mothers and deprive them of any support. Even an unmarried pregnant woman was made illegal, for fear that she might escape the public scrutiny; while those who befriended her were exposed to public criticism
1993: 51-52; Ozment 1983: 43).