or, putting Marie in her proper place
Lesley A. Hall
Marie Stopes: saintly saviour of suffering womanhood? high priestess of sex? evil eugenicist advocate? How should we situate Marie Stopes within the early twentieth century movement for birth control and women's sexual rights? In 1965 A. J. P. Taylor described her in English History, 1914-1945, as ‘one of the great benefactors of the age’ about which he was writing. Other writers have not been so kind and there was something of a furore when a set of postage stamps featuring Great British Women issued in 2008 included Stopes.
Even, or perhaps particularly, her contemporaries covered a range of different viewpoints. Reading her correspondence from grateful readers to whom she had opened up a new world of sexual ecstasy within marriage, we come across a plethora of fulsome tributes:
The perfect frankness and the clean wholesome manner of giving intimate details
Probably doing more good than any book published during the last century or so
Lifting the sacrament of love from the unhappy atmosphere with which it is so often surrounded
However, these views were far from universal. The Roman Catholic doctor Halliday Sutherland notoriously described her as
a woman who is a Doctor of German Philosophy (Munich) [who] has opened a birth control clinic where working women are instructed in a method of contraception described by Professor McIlroy as ‘the most harmful method of which I have had experience’.
A number of respondents in a recent oral history survey by Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher had a notably unroseate image of her:
There was one or two books went the rounds of the fellas. What we used to call 'dirty books'... Stopes, Marie Stopes.... um, that was very naughty
Marie Stopes was... frowned on by everybody. She was a fallen woman doing all that and making a lot of money out of it.
Yes, Dr Marie Stopes. A woman who had never been married but who knew all about it and it was referred to by one or two people I knew as a really filthy book.
Opinions among colleagues within the birth control movement were by no means entirely positive: Stella Browne wrote in 1922 to Havelock Ellis that
it is going to be very difficult for anyone to work with her at all. I can't give you a detailed description of her behaviour at our recent Birth Control Meeting but I assure you it was a pitiful exhibition of temper and insolence and made a most unfortunate general impression. Moreover she seems to be getting quite unbalanced in her egomania and conceit.... she is making fresh enemies daily.
A complex figure who aroused strong feelings positive and negative, partly, surely less for herself than the campaign she was so visibly spearheading, but also, it's arguable, for specific reasons to do with her own personality.
In this presentation I shall be endeavouring to situate Marie Stopes both ideologically and in the context of the wider British birth control movement.
An accusation often hurled at Stopes is that she was a rabid eugenicist, and questions about this almost inevitably crop up when one gives a paper on her (probably even if one gave a paper on her dire poetry this question would come up in discussion). It is therefore a question that has to be addressed.
are several facets to Stopes's position on eugenics: there is what eugenics
actually signified in the context of 20s and 30s
makes an unwonted jump from the fact that an individual might believe that some
qualities were inborn and that environmental interventions would make no difference
to them, to the assumption that they did not, in any circumstances, believe
that it was possible to intervene to improve the standard of people's health
and their quality of life. Scholars of the
Eugenics is too often assumed to have been a monolithic and clearly-understood ideology, stable over time, and predictive of particular attitudes and sympathies in its adherents, whereas there was no one eugenics either in beliefs or policy implications. It was sufficiently protean to be harnessed to different political tendencies, ranging from the ultra conservative to the social-reformist and socialist. There was little common ground, for example, between the extreme right wing thinker Captain Anthony Ludovici, whose radical notions included tolerating infanticide of “faulty, abnormal and unsavoury” offspring, and the doctor Eden Paul, who regarded capitalism as inherently dysgenic and dreamed of a communist revolution which would produce robust comrades resembling the heroic figures on Soviet posters. At one end of the spectrum eugenics was seen as the reset button to revert society to a desired state it had once enjoyed in the past; at the other it was seen as part of the arsenal of modernity to bring about a brave new world of the future.
Leading popularisers of eugenic ideas in the early twentieth century such as Caleb Saleeby were often perceived as somewhat suspect by true believers of the 'breeding is all' school of eugenic thought, given that their popularising eugenic message might be presented embedded within beliefs in the role of environmental factors, passionate interest in infant welfare initiatives, and concern over issues such as alcoholism. Stopes could readily be classified as another maverick popularizer regarded with considerable suspicion by the Eugenics Society. She argued that much of the “C3 problem” (the expression derived from the classification of substandard military recruits) could be eradicated by enabling working-class women to limit and space pregnancies, with benefit to their own and their progeny’s health.
Eugenics thus did not
have a particularly stable meaning for individuals in
Even when people held a concept of eugenics which more or less tallied with that promoted by the Society, very often it featured as just one element in a bundle of “modern” ideas about the reform of society using the resources of science, alongside beliefs in various other forms of remedial action which would ameliorate the state of health of the nation. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowksa's new book Managing the Body presents an array of ideas and practices around physical culture and dietary reform powerfully connected to debates on national fitness. Health Education Exhibitions organised during the 1930s under the auspices of the Central Council for Health Education, the brainchild of the Society of Medical Officers of Health, a group predominately concerned with environmental interventions, included stands from the Eugenics Society but also those of societies advocating the virtues of wholemeal bread and various forms of exercise.
Stopes's much-cited objection to her prospective daughter-in-law on hereditarian grounds has given perhaps unwonted prominence to this particular facet of her thought. As June Rose pointed out in her biography of Stopes, 'For an outsider it would be hard to find a rational explanation for Stopes's intense objection to the engagement'. Given her rather obsessive involvement with her only son Harry, it seems more like an extreme case of a prospective mother-in-law dredging up reasons to scorn the intended bride. In the case of Mary Wallis, Stopes fixated on the myopia which necessitated her wearing glasses. The condemnation of short sight as a eugenic defect was far from unique to Stopes, being mentioned by the eugenicist Communist Eden Paul as one of the defects being proliferated as the dysgenic result of capitalism, and cited as a reason for not becoming a sperm donor by a leading member of the Eugenics Society.
Stopes was indeed a member of the Eugenics Society for many years (she left it her clinics lest they should fall into the hands of the Family Planning Association, with which she had a long-standing quarrel). However, her relationship with it was somewhat fraught, both given her somewhat maverick personal version of a eugenic creed, and the continuing prominence in the Society of her first husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates. Stopes had obtained an annulment of the marriage on the grounds of Gates's failure to consummate the union and he bore her a grudge for the rest of his life, leaving a statement of his own position to the British Museum Department of Manuscripts on his death.
Like many of her contemporaries Stopes held strong views about good and bad breeding. However to characterize her as merely and simply a eugenicist tends to ignore the very strong feminist and indeed humanitarian beliefs which inflected her ideas on eugenics. She caricatured the type of eugenic thinker who believed in letting the natural Darwinian struggle have its way as Professor Beverley Black in her propagandist play, Our Ostriches (about which we shall be hearing more from Christina Hauck). Professor Black is shown as providing supposedly scientific justification for the maintenance of the status quo, acceptable to conservative powers that be.
Stopes had a demonstrable allegiance to the tradition, going back several decades, of demanding social, political and economic rights for women so that they could make a genuine choice of the best fathers for their children. She also deployed the burgeoning ideas of the day about endocrinology to advance a new version of the age-old theory of maternal impressions, claiming that a mother’s state of mind during pregnancy (willing and wanted or unwillingly borne) would have subtle effects on her internal secretions which would affect the developing embryo. Her position was always that the majority of women would bear healthier children and rear them better, once they had the chance to space their pregnancies. Moreover, as Deborah Cohen has demonstrated in her article on the operation of Stopes’s clinics, their actual practice revealed little or no eugenic agenda. Her sympathy towards individuals asking for her advice often contradicted her public pronouncements, though this may signify a disjunction between what she felt it politic to say in public and what she would communicate more privately.
most of her male contemporaries concerned over questions of nation, race and
breeding, she did not believe that healthy middle-class white women should be
expected to breed for
an endless chain of fruitless lives all looking ever to some supreme future consummation which never materializes. By means of this perpetual sinking of woman’s personality in a mistaken interpretation of her duty to the race, every generation is sacrificed in turn.
Women, she argued, should themselves determine how many children they wanted, ‘The best woman’ was one ‘who, out of a long, healthy and vitally active life, is called upon to spend but a comparatively small proportion of her years in an exclusive subservience to motherhood’, while it was ‘Baby’s right to be wanted’ rather than born to a ‘revolted, horror-stricken mother'. She also argued that careers were beneficial to women in the role not merely as wife but as mother. It is true that although she so powerfully believed that enabling ‘voluntary procreation and joyous bearing’ of children would benefit the nation, Stopes also reflected the panic current at the time over ‘the vast and ever increasing stock of degenerate, feeble-minded and unbalanced’; and like many contemporaries, advocated sterilization. However, this topic, to which she gave less than half a chapter in Radiant Motherhood, compared to the amount of space she devoted to the desirability of wanted children, has cast a disproportionate shadow over Stopes’s reputation. While we may deplore her failure to apply to this received opinion of her day the critical analysis that she turned onto so many assumptions, should this occlude, in considering her thought, influence and ultimate reputation, her feminist and humanitarian arguments and causes to which she devoted so much energy?
Her views were thus by no means as doctrinaire and rigid as the characterization of her as eugenicist usually implies. In particular it should not be assumed that because she displayed sympathy for some eugenic positions, she therefore approved of the policies of the German Third Reich. This was not true in general of the British Eugenics Society: although some individuals associated with the society were politically on the Far Right, the Society, though impressed by the successes of pronatalist interventions by the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, and initially welcoming Germany’s 1933 compulsory sterilization of the physically and mentally dysgenic, officially dissociated itself from Nazi Race Hygiene policies in 1933, describing these as “so-called eugenic policy…. pseudo-science” in a letter to The Lancet. This 'so-called eugenic policy' was surely what Stopes was referring to when she responded to a suggestion by her literary agent in 1936 that she might write a book on eugenics: 'I do not think I want to write a book on Eugenics. The word has been so tarnished by some people that they are not going to get my name tacked on to it.'
It was, surely, feminism which was central to Stopes’s career and ideas. While in her relationships with associates and colleagues she does not seem to have been notably ‘sisterly’ as I shall discuss when considering her relations with the wider birth control movement, the overall tendency of her activities was towards improving the position of women. Many of the causes she espoused, it is true, concerned injustices bearing most heavily on the educated middle-class woman: the right to retain one’s maiden name after marriage, the right to be taxed separately and not as an appendage, and the right to continue in a rewarding career whatever one’s marital status. Her less publicized work for divorce law reform was doubtless fuelled by her realization that as they stood the divorce laws had allowed no means by which she could end the disaster of her first marriage.
She was also deeply dedicated to ameliorating the lot of women in a much less fortunate position than herself. Her humane compassion for overburdened multiparous working-class women comes over in several of her publications, for example A Letter to Working Mothers, the account of the early days of the Mothers’ Clinic in The First Five Thousand, and Mother England, in which she foregrounded these women's own accounts of their experiences in order to make a powerful case for permitting birth control advice via publicly-funded maternal welfare clinics. The grateful response of women from this very different milieu to Stopes’s great crusade is amply reflected in the many letters she received, not merely seeking advice and assistance but conveying messages of support.
Motherhood was of course a critical element within Stopes’s thinking. ‘Joyous and Radiant Motherhood’ was the motto of the Mothers’ Clinic and the Society for Constructive Birth Control, and she always emphasized the work the clinics did to assist women who wanted babies but were having problems in conceiving, as well as their successes in providing contraception. However, for Stopes, motherhood was implicitly associated with marriage. While her play The Race made a sympathetic case for chosen unmarried motherhood, Stopes held aloof from contemporary arguments for ‘free motherhood’ and women’s rights to enjoy maternity even without a husband. In spite of her passionate critiques of the injustices of the law relating to women’s position in marriage, and her own traumatic experiences, the monogamous, yet egalitarian, union of man and woman remained central to her thought, not merely as personally fulfilling but as the underpinning of a new social order. Her most famous statement on the subject, Married Love, began with the sweeping generalization, ‘Every heart desires a mate’.20
Although Stopes remains a figure of some interest as a pioneering woman scientist and an activist in a variety of other early twentieth century feminist campaign, her reputation rests primarily on her work as birth control advocate and sex educator. Her unique role in the interwar fight for contraception as publicist extraordinaire, rendering a topic previously unspeakable a matter for fashionable tea-table conversation, was essential to the success of the less flamboyant endeavours of setting up clinics, lobbying Parliament, and undertaking research into methods. It must however be admitted that, as far as the wider birth control movement went, Marie Stopes did not play nicely with others, failed to give credit where it was due, was unsupportive of other campaigners when they fell foul of the law and officialdom, and was unable to work in harmony or even tactical solidarity with the rest of the movement.
involvement with the birth control movement well predated the publication of Married Love and her emergence as a
high-profile campaigner. She became involved with the Malthusian League,
established in 1877 and for many years the sole British organisation advocating
the spread of knowledge of birth control, around the time of the breakup of her
marriage. She met the American reproductive rights campaigner Margaret Sanger
when the latter fled to
Stopes, however, in setting up her own, high profile, Society for Constructive Birth Control at her great Queen's Hall Meeting in 1921, was deliberately and openly repudiating the Malthusian League. There were doubtless ideological and tactical reasons for this. 'Malthusianism' was associated with a rather dreary and unsensual focus on the economic benefits of family limitation, under the offputting designation of 'prudential restraint', and the League was dominated by the fervently anti-socialist and anti-state provision Drysdales, even though it had acquired influential supporters of very different political stripe, including H. G. Wells and Stella Browne. The League itself possibly realised that the word Malthusian was doing it no favours when it changed its name to the New Generation League in 1922. It also had deep roots in the late Victorian secularist movement: Stopes, whose introduction of a 'spiritual' note in her writings was much appreciated by her readership, wanted to broaden the appeal of birth control and as early as 1920 had made an appeal to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, in her New Gospel to All Peoples, which she claimed as the product of personal divine inspiration while sitting in her garden at Leatherhead.
Stopes regarded the Malthusian message as essentially negative and wished to position herself as making a positive case for the benefits of contraception as the means to healthy babies and a satisfying marital sex-life unblemished by fears of unwanted conceptions. It also seems probable that however much the Malthusian League appreciated her efforts for the Cause, they were disinclined to set her up as their sole figurehead and to accede without question to her desired new direction. They had also been rather sluggish in taking direct action in founding actual clinics, having focused their efforts on propaganda, although Alice Vickery Drysdale had held informal advice sessions in Rotherhithe before the First World War. Once Stopes had set up her own Mothers' Clinic in North London, it appears that the Malthusian League was provoked or stimulated to get its own act together and set up the Walworth Women's Welfare Centre in South London a few months later.
Her relations with the rest of the birth control movement continued to develop a state of tension. Early in 1922 Stella Browne was describing her as 'unbalanced in her egomania and conceit' at a birth control meeting as already mentioned. Matters between Stopes and Browne grew more inimical as Browne, in letters to Stopes and ultimately in the pages of The New Generation, queried her failure to give acknowledge contributions made by Margaret Sanger. This so infuriated Stopes that she asked her solicitor about the possibility of suing both The New Generation and the poverty-stricken Browne herself for libel. This rather unpleasant suggestion went no further, but Stopes did induce her solicitor to act again the statements in Dr Halliday Sutherland's Birth Control: a statement of Christian doctrine against the Neo-Malthusians which were clearly recognisable as about her in spite of omitting her name. However, this action was still pending by the end of 1922.
Towards the end of that year the health visitor Nurse Elizabeth Daniels was dismissed by her employers, Edmonton Council, for giving birth control advice. Although Stopes initially expressed sympathy, she then withdrew her support. The anarchist publishers Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop had their press raided and copies of Margaret Sanger's Family Limitation confiscated. They were subsequently prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act: while most birth control advocates rallied to their support, Stopes was conspicuous by her absence, and indeed, Stella Browne even wondered to Havelock Ellis whether 'Stopes may not be behind it all'. Although she might not have been behind the original raid and prosecution, she did write privately to the Director of Public Prosecutions to condemn Sanger's work. It is possible to speculate that Stopes, in bringing her libel suit, had visions of outdoing in fame or notoriety the case famous in the annals of the birth control movement of the prosecution of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing the birth control tract Fruits of Philosophy in 1877. She thus probably did not welcome the high profile that Aldred and Witcop were getting, the centrality of Sanger in their case, and the association of birth control with anarchist radicals.
Her own libel suit began on 21st February 1923 and was not the triumphant vindication of her views that she had, presumably, anticipated, with significant hostility in court not merely from the prosecution and their witnesses but from Mr Justice Hewitt on the bench. The case went to appeal and dragged on in an inconclusive fashion for several years. Nonetheless, Stella Browne noted the 'good adv[ertisemen]t the Stopes case [is] giving the cause': sales of her books soared and her correspondence multiplied because of the extensive media publicity the case garnered.
Meanwhile, the birth control movement in general was expanding rapidly. New organisations were being set up: the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinic, the Workers' Birth Control Group, which mounted a political campaign to persuade the Ministry of Health to permit contraceptive advice to be given in local authority welfare clinics, the Birth Control Investigation Committee
to facilitate research into methods, and a Birth Control International Information Centre to coordinate endeavours taking place worldwide. Although the British birth control movement is often imagined as having been embodied in Stopes, it soon moved far beyond her - went viral, we might now say - and other hands took up the task. It seems not unlikely that Stopes would have welcomed this development, provided that all new recruits had placed themselves under her command. This was not, however, the case.
In 1930 the Ministry of Health finally, if covertly, conceded in its memorandum 153/MCW that local Medical Officers of Health might legitimately authorise the giving of birth control advice in maternity and child welfare clinics in cases where a woman's life would be threatened by further pregnancy. This memo, however, was only sent to officials who requested it, but a leaked copy was published by Stopes in her Birth Control News.
The moment was propitious for all birth control organisations to form one national body, the National Birth Control Council, subsequently National Birth Control Association. There was significant resistance from many of them to inviting Stopes to participate, but Dr Helena Wright of the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, insisted upon her inclusion, while undertaking to 'manage' her. Stopes tried to dominate proceedings and was not inclined to take a cooperative approach. In 1933 she resigned from the Association, refusing to state a reason.
She had very definite ideas on how clinics should be run. Some of these make excellent sense, for example her decision to employ specially trained nurses with midwifery qualifications as the main point of contact for clinic users, with women doctors only available when further medical examination was necessary. Her logic was that women would find this less intimidating. She also insisted that her clinics be pleasing and welcoming places, something that was not always attainable for other organisations which were obliged to operate services on a part-time basis in premises not their own. However, she became somewhat obsessed with a particular method of birth control, the small cervical cap, and although her clinics would recommend other devices in certain cases, she believed this to be the best and most desirable type of female barrier method. Many women found difficulty in fitting these caps, which had to be carefully positioned high in the vagina, and the NBCA preferred the Dutch cap or diaphragm as easier to fit and remove. Stopes also found much to object to in the NBCA's development of the spermicide Volpar, which she condemned because it contained mercury.
These opinions, which Stopes held with her characteristic tenacity, meant that she increasingly came to appear cranky and eccentric as well as difficult among fellow-workers for birth control, even if she was still seen as its high priestess among the general public. Though even there, although her books continued to sell, correspondence from the public began to fall off during the 1930s.
Ultimately, then, how do we situate Stopes? What is Marie's proper place? Her most important achievement, perhaps, was her service to birth control as a publicist. She was news, she had a media presence, and even though her libel suit may have proved personally humiliating, it spread the word as more direct propaganda for her New Gospel had failed to do. She wrote accessible books and journalism to get her message across. To conduct her great crusade she needed to be determined and resistant to criticism, even if she lacked the ability to see when diplomacy might have been more appropriate or to cooperate with allies when necessary. She was not quite the selfless saint of succour to suffering womanhood that she would have liked history to record to her name, but she was not, either, quite the monster of oppressive attitudes that some subsequent historians have suggested. She was often enormously sympathetic and helpful above and beyond the call of duty to complete strangers who sought her help, even if she was less than pleasant to individuals closer at hand, not to mention creepily smarmy towards the great and good of her day whom she wished to attach to her circle. She was a woman whose achievements, I think, we can admire, even if we find other aspects embarrassing and feel that social interaction with her might have been cringe-making: I cannot resist concluding with the story of Stopes at a formal dinner-party in Belfast set up for her to meet local influential people and interest them in the recently established birth control clinic. She 'ignored the usual social pleasantries and gave a running lecture on contraception, at one point even producing a Dutch cap from her handbag and passing it round the dinner table'.
 A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 165.
 Marie Stopes papers in the Wellcome Library, 'ML [Married Love]-GEN[eral]', PP/MCSA.183 Mr SCM; A.112 Mr FRG; A.179 Mr DOEM; 'ML-CLERGY', PP/MCS/A.297 Rev CAB
 Halliday Sutherland, Birth Control: a statement of Christian doctrine against the Neo-Malthusians (London: Harding and More, 1922), pp. 101-102.
Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex Before
the Sexual Revolution: intimate life in
 Stella Browne to Havelock Ellis, 6th March 1922, Ellis papers in the Department of Manuscripts, British Library, Add. Mss. 70539.
 Michael Freeden, ‘Eugenics and Progressive Thought:
a Study in Ideological Affinity’, The Historical Journal, 22, no 3
(1979), 645-671; and see entry for
Ludovici in in the Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography; lecture, c. 1925, ‘'The Psycho- and Physiological
Objections to the Use of Contraceptives and an Alternative' to the British
Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, British Sexological Society archives
in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Paul's beliefs were expressed in his contribution, Eden Paul, ‘Birth Control:
Communist and Individual Aspects’ to a symposium
held under the auspices of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology.
proceedings of which were published in the
 See entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
 ‘Advice and Enquiries’, SA/EUG/D.3-4, ‘Pre-Marital Health Schedule’, SA/EUG/D.164-5.
 Lesley A. Hall, 'Marie Stopes and her correspondents: personalising population decline in an era of demographic change', in ed. Robert Peel, Marie Stopes, Eugenics and the English Birth Control Movement: (London: The Galton Institute, 1997), 27-48.
 Paul, ‘Birth Control: Communist and Individual Aspects’.
P. Blacker to the Bishop of
 British Library Department of Manuscripts .Additional Manuscript 59848.
 Deborah A. Cohen, ‘Private lives in public spaces: Marie Stopes, the Mothers' Clinics and the practice of contraception’, History Workshop, vol. 35 (Spring 1993), pp. 95-116.
 Hall, ‘Marie Stopes and her correspondents: personalising population decline'.
 Marie Carmichael .Stopes, Radiant Motherhood .: A Book for Those Who are Creating the Future (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920), p. 159.
 Stopes, Radiant Motherhood, p. 157.
 Stopes, Radiant Motherhood:, p. 177.
 Stopes, Radiant Motherhood, p.159.
 .Stopes, Radiant Motherhood, pp. 218-9.
 Julian Huxley to C. P. Blacker, 29 May 1933, SA/EUG/C.209; The Lancet (1933), I,
1265-6. And see Julian Huxley, A. C. Huddon and A. M. Carr-Saunders, We Europeans:
a Survey of
“Racial” Problems (
 Marie Stopes to John Farquharson, 23 Oct 1936, PP/MCS/A.85.
 Stella Browne to
 F. W. Stella Browne to
 Moya Woodside, letter of 6 Aug 1981, Moya Woodside papers in the Wellcome Library, GC/39/4.