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Civilization without Sexes

Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927

In the raucous decade following World War I, newly blurred boundaries between male and female created fears among the French that theirs was becoming a civilization without sexes. This new gender confusion became a central metaphor for the War’s impact on French culture and led to a marked increase in public debate concerning female identity and woman’s proper role. Mary Louise Roberts examines how in these debates French society came to grips with the catastrophic horrors of the Great War.

In sources as diverse as parliamentary records, newspaper articles, novels, medical texts, writings on sexology, and vocational literature, Roberts discovers a central question: how to come to terms with rapid economic, social, and cultural change and articulate a new order of social relationships. She examines the role of French trauma concerning the War in legislative efforts to ban propaganda for abortion and contraception, and explains anxieties about the decline of maternity by a crisis in gender relations that linked soldiery, virility, and paternity.

Through these debates, Roberts locates the seeds of actual change. She shows how the willingness to entertain, or simply the need to condemn, nontraditional gender roles created an indecisiveness over female identity that ultimately subverted even the most conservative efforts to return to traditional gender roles and irrevocably altered the social organization of gender in postwar France.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Catharine R. Stimpson
Introduction - This Civilization No Longer Has Sexes
Part One - La Femme Moderne
1. This Being Without Breasts, Without Hips
2. She Stood at the Center of a Shattered World
3. Women Are Cutting Their Hair as a Sign of Sterility
Part Two - La Mère
4. A Matter of Life or Death
5. Madame Doesn’t Want a Child
Part Three - La Femme Seule
6. There Is Something Else in Life besides Love
7. We Must Facilitate the Transition to the New World
Conclusion - Are We Witnessing the Birth of a New Civilization?


American Historical Association: Joan Kelly Memorial Prize

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