Every picture tells a story: as this week sees the marking of International Women’s Day it seems fitting to honour a woman who worked to change the lives of women across the social spectrum, Marie Stopes. In 1921 see attended the Fabian Summer School at Priors Field, Godalming and was captured by the camera of GB Shaw. In the same year Stopes opened the first family planning clinic in the UK. Today, 17th March, is the anniversary of that first clinic in Holloway.
She sought not only to improve reproductive health but to break down taboos by offering explicit advice to women and advocating pleasure in sexual relations which shocked many at the time. She also shocked by speaking of her own sexual life, claiming that her first marriage (annulled) was unconsummated and having her second husband back her most famous work, Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of the Sex Difficulties (1918). Married Love was an immediate success, selling 2,000 copies within a fortnight and being reprinted six times in by the end of 1918. The book was also published in America but banned for obscenity. It was at this time she met Margaret Sanger, a birth control campaigner, and became committed to her cause. This was no small step as Annie Besant, amongst others, had been sent to prison for advocating birth control. Regardless of possible derision and legal charges she published Wise Parenthood (1918) and founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control (1921). Although not prosecuted she did face opposition for example, Halide Southland called for her imprisonment for writing obscene materials in the popular press and his book Birth Control which led to Stopes’ involvement in a libel case. Undeterred she spent much of her time writing articles for her newspaper Birth Control News until her death in 1958.
Stopes campaigned for women in other ways also for example, to tax husbands and wives separately and on employment issues such as, in 1912 offering evidence to the Royal Commission on the Civil Service, relating to the employment of women on the scientific staff of the British Museum (available in the Archives, PASSFIELD/13/1) and arguing for the removal of the marriage bar (which prevented married women from working). It is perhaps fitting that she committed herself to women’s causes having been a recipient of a quality formal education, at a time when few women had the chance of a higher education, having won a science scholarship to University College, London where she achieved a double first in botany in 1901 and obtained her DSc in 1905 (becoming Britain’s youngest doctor of Science in the process). This love of botany continued and Stopes even discussed accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on an expedition.
However, she is not a figure without controversy. Stopes shared with Shaw an interest in and advocated for eugenics. This has to be seen in the context of the time, eugenics was not a discredited science before World War II. Both supported the view that mankind would advance through selective reproduction and both addressed the Eugenics Society (Stopes willed them the majority of her personal fortune). But whilst people have argued about whether Shaw was being radical or satirical in his (to us) more outrageous comments Stopes is clear: in Radiant Motherhood (1920) she called for the “sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood [to] be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory”. Yet in no way does this lessen her impact on the improvement of women’s health and hygiene, issues still pertinent in many parts of the world.
Stopes has left us with a legacy not only in her clinics and Foundation but in the psychology of women to see themselves as equal partners in relationships. Marie Stopes International continues to campaign for reproductive health and access to quality services and information for all women.
Copyright: LSE, GB Shaw (Society of Authors) no part of this post may be used without permission.