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The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism

Françoise Vergès | Translated by Kaiama L. Glover

In the 1960s thousands of poor women of color on the (post)colonial French island of Reunion had their pregnancies forcefully terminated by white doctors; the doctors operated under the pretext of performing benign surgeries, for which they sought government compensation. When the scandal broke in 1970, the doctors claimed to have been encouraged to perform these abortions by French politicians who sought to curtail reproduction on the island, even though abortion was illegal in France. In The Wombs of Women—first published in French and appearing here in English for the first time—Françoise Vergès traces the long history of colonial state intervention in black women’s wombs during the slave trade and postslavery imperialism as well as in current birth control politics. She examines the women’s liberation movement in France in the 1960s and 1970s, showing that by choosing to ignore the history of the racialization of women’s wombs, French feminists inevitably ended up defending the rights of white women at the expense of women of color. Ultimately, Vergès demonstrates how the forced abortions on Reunion were manifestations of the legacies of the racialized violence of slavery and colonialism.

Françoise Vergès is an antiracist feminist activist, a public educator, an independent curator, and the cofounder of the collective Decolonize the Arts and of the free and open university Decolonizing the Arts. She is the author of Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage, also published by Duke University Press, and numerous books in French. 

Kaiama L. Glover is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard College.


PRAISE FOR THE BOOK

“A fantastic, powerful, and accessible book, The Wombs of Women offers a historicized vision of postcolonialism and deprovincializes feminism by looking at the ways in which feminism has been nationalized to the detriment of its function as critique. It is the best ‘new’ feminist theory I've read in a long time.” — Joan Wallach Scott, author of Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom

“In her wonderful book, Françoise Vergès creates a methodology for teasing out the various strands within which French Republican thought has sustained gender, class, and racial inequality. In doing so, she conceptualizes a new lexicon for postcolonial critique. From the scandal in Reunion to the forms of sovereignty that work within this logic, feminism needs to reconfigure itself if it is to be a force adequate to the future in the face of its previous ignorance. Vergès’s book takes us there.” — Ranjana Khanna, author of Algeria Cuts: Women and Representation, 1830 to the Present

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