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How 343 Women Made French History by Talking About Their Abortions

7 minute read

On April 5, 1971, in France, 343 filmmakers, writers, actresses, singers and philosophers ended a long-held silence.

“One million women have abortions each year in France,” they wrote in a manifesto published in the magazine Nouvel Observateur. “I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I’ve had an abortion. We demand open access to contraceptives; we demand open abortion.”

Abortion in France had been a crime since 1810, during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the manifesto tipped off a debate that would echo through to the highest levels of government. Written with the help of star intellectual Simone de Beauvoir and signed by celebrities ranging from Catherine Deneuve to Françoise Sagan, the text circulated quickly throughout the country.

It would take only a few days for the 343 women to be deemed salopes, usually translated as “sluts” — a name that has stuck to the manifesto since its original publication.

For the women who organized the movement behind the Manifesto of the 343, the moment for change was long past due. Women around the world, from Europe to New Zealand to the United States, were organizing for abortion rights. When the manifesto was published, the American Women’s Liberation movement was gaining ground, but Roe v. Wade was still three years away.

At the time, an estimated hundreds of thousands of women underwent illegal abortions annually in France. Those who could afford to went to private clinics or to doctors abroad, but the vast majority of women took their chances on kitchen tables and back-alley offices, at the wire hangers of the faiseuses d’anges (illegal abortion providers referred to as “Angel Makers”).

Not only did women risk their lives, they risked jail time. The French state prosecuted abortion, and for a brief period during the Vichy regime of WWII, it was punishable by death. The last execution for abortion–related crimes in France — by guillotine — took place in 1943. By the 1970s, women had had enough.

“The abortion situation in the 1970s was a completely unique one, because there was a law that banned abortion, but in fact this law was not at all respected,” explains Martine Storti, a professor and feminist who worked as a journalist for the French daily Libération in the late ‘70s. “There was no way to avoid [taking action] because there was a huge movement that concerned itself with all women in society.”

The women’s movement, led by the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF), took root following a wave of protests in 1968 — a time when riots were so commonplace in the streets of Paris that police paved over roads to get rid of the cobblestones that were being used as projectiles. But the time of revolt for women and their reproductive rights had only just begun.

MLF formed in 1970 to advocate for women’s bodily autonomy, forged in the spirit of liberation that had dominated the protest movements of the late ‘60s. Freedom of choice was central to MLF, particularly as women around the world realized that the battles won in the ‘60s for equal rights had not always reaped benefits for women. Marie-Jo Bonnet, a women’s historian and author of the memoir Mon MLF, joined the movement in 1971. Raised in a conservative Catholic family in northern France, she found a new home in the MLF in her early 20s. The group changed her life, she says.

“Women’s bodies are our territory, and it’s a territory that has been colonized by the power of men,” she tells TIME. “It is an emancipation. We are taking back the power of our own lives.”

MLF joined forces with de Beauvoir for the manifesto, and traces of her ideas can be found throughout the rhetoric in France surrounding abortion rights. De Beauvoir was already a celebrity by the ‘70s, known for her novels as well as her controversial 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a founding text of 20th century feminism. The book argued in part that women’s bodies — far from being the scientific reason why they existed as second-class citizens — were a convenient pretext used to systematically deny them equal rights. Women’s ability to bear children had long been held up as a reason for their differentiated role in society, and De Beauvoir saw abortion as a necessary step for women to find a place outside of the home.

While common ground existed with the Women’s Liberation movement in the U.S., the arguments being made for abortion in France were both unique and arguably more militant than their American counterparts.

Feminists like De Beauvoir argued that — beyond the medical risks and privacy rights (arguably the focus of Roe v. Wade) — without access to abortion, women could not be full citizens of France. In a longer dossier that accompanied the manifesto, the authors declared that abortion was a basic prerequisite to free society. After all, how could women assert their independence in the spheres of politics and business if they could not even assert their independence over their own bodies?

“Abortion in the States was always about a private right, which makes sense within the context of U.S. ideology — privacy, the private citizen, individualism,” says Debra Bergoffen, a philosophy professor at American University in Washington and author of the book The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. “For Beauvoir — I don’t want to say it’s not a private right — but it’s also: ‘how are women going to appear in the public realm?’”

The manifesto did just that: it thrust women into the public sphere on a long divisive issue.

Manifestation en faveur de l'avortement a Grenoble
An abortion-rights protest in Grenoble, France, on May 11, 1973.Michel Causse—Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

The organizers moved quickly following the publication of the manifesto to capitalize on its momentum. De Beauvoir testified as a character witness the next year in the Bobigny trial, in which a 16-year-old rape victim named Marie-Claire was tried for securing an illegal abortion. The trial drew wide media coverage, exposing the unique challenges faced by poor and young women when it came to abortion. Marie-Claire was acquitted.

Within less than four years of the manifesto’s publication, Health Minister Simone Veil presented a law on Nov. 26, 1974, to the National Assembly (98% male at the time) that would legalize abortion.

As with the manifesto, Veil’s proposed law produced fierce allies as well as violent detractors. Members of the Assembly attacked Veil personally, and one conservative deputy even compared her to Hitler. He later claimed not to know that Veil was a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The health minister continued her project, despite threats on her safety and swastikas appearing on the walls of her apartment building. By 1975, the bill would become law.

Not all of the 343 “sluts” would be remembered in the history books with Veil or de Beauvoir. But their initial avowal, their statement of “Me Too” when it came to abortion, is a testament to the strength of solidarity. They served as a powerful example of the change that women can affect when they speak out together — a power that many will recognize working in the world today.

Jess McHugh is a New York-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Paris Review and The New Republic, among other outlets.

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