Marie Stopes is best known today as a pioneer in ‘family planning’ – her controversial book, Married Love (1918), was one of the first widely published guides to contraceptive methods. However, alongside her fierce advocation for women’s rights (including free access to contraception), Stopes was also a eugenicist, publicly anti-abortion and did not believe access to contraception should stretch to unmarried women.
Her legacy is undeniably felt to this day, and she remains a somewhat controversial figure. But who was this seemingly paradoxical campaigner?
A remarkable young woman
Marie Stopes was born in Edinburgh in October 1880 to an educated middle-class family. Her parents both took a keen interest in science – they had met at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science – and Marie became interested herself.
She was awarded a scholarship to study botany and geology at University College London, and graduated with a First just two years later. She then studied for a PhD in botany in Munich, and on completion, became the first female academic at the University of Manchester when she took up a lecturer post.
As an early career researcher, she became extremely interested in coal balls, winning prizes to study in Japan and Canada. It was in America that Marie met her first husband, Reginald Gates: they married after mere months of meeting, and later parted ways in 1914.
Following a string of failed relationships – including the annulment of her first marriage on the grounds of non-consummation – Marie began to read and research the topic of contraception more widely. In 1918, she published her seminal work, Married Love, which many have cited as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
The book offered a range of advice on how to have a happy marriage, including information about forms of birth control, discussion of female sexual desire and consent, and the advocation of communication between husband and wife.
It was met with a very mixed reception: it sold particularly well to women and was reprinted seven times in the first year of its publication. However, the more conservative establishment – including many medical professionals and particularly the Catholic church – condemned the book as obscene and dangerous.
Readers began to write to Marie for advice, and she did her best to answer where she could. Wise Parenthood was published later in 1918, with Radiant Motherhood published in 1920. Note the titles of her books refer only to sexual relations within marriage: whilst her work may have been controversial, it was far from truly radical.
Birth control clinics
Marie met her second husband, Humphrey Roe, shortly after the publication of Married Love, and in another whirlwind romance, they married two months later. Marie resigned her post at UCL in 1920 in order to focus. In March 1921, following in the footsteps of American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, they set up a birth control clinic in Holloway, north London. This provided free advice to married women about contraception from doctors and nurses, and also provided cervical caps.
Stopes was anti-abortion, believing that through the use of contraception and having advice freely available, it simply would not be necessary: abortion remained illegal in the UK until 1967. Her clinic received the active support of prominent figures of the day, including Vera Brittain, suffragette Lady Constance Lytton and John Maynard Keynes.
However, ultimately her desire to promote contraceptive advice seems to have stemmed from Marie’s interest in eugenics. She founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, and was concerned about the ‘reckless breeding [of]… the semi-feebleminded, the careless’, which she saw as a ‘grave social danger’.
Regardless, the clinic proved to be a roaring success, and it moved to central London in 1925. Additional clinics were opened in Leeds, Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff and Swansea between 1934 and 1943. These clinics continued to operate long after her death, and many do so today.
Stopes accused Dr. Halliday Sutherland of libel in 1923, after he attacked her in his 1922 book Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo Malthusians. He condemned Stopes’ birth control clinic, calling it ‘harmful’ and a ‘monstrous campaign’ – he also used her PhD from Munich against her in an attempt to capitalise on post-war anti-German sentiment.
The jury agreed that Sutherland had made unnecessary and defamatory remarks, but that they were ‘true in fact’, meaning the case was decided on legal judgement. Stopes won the case, and was awarded £100, but this victory was later overturned by the House of Lords. Sutherland had the Catholic community firmly on side, and they raised £10,000 to help cover his legal costs.
Whilst Marie’s pioneering advocation of birth control and frank discussion of sexual relations undoubtedly makes her an important figure in the history books, much of her reasoning for doing so stemmed from something more sinister than sexual liberation – something she most definitely did not advocate.
Eugenics had become a popular discourse in the early 20th century, and she was far from the only notable person to be an advocate of these ideas. Quite how extreme Marie was is unclear: for example, in Radiant Motherhood, she advocates for sterilisation of those she considered ‘unfit’ for parenthood, whilst elsewhere she condemned mixed race marriages as well as marriage for anyone with less than perfect health.
Her only son, Harry, married Mary Wallis – who happened to be short-sighted. The match disappointed Stopes and the two had a rocky relationship from then on. She cut him out of her will almost entirely, writing that in marrying Wallis he had ‘betrayed’ her.
However, modern biographers have suggested that Stopes was actually on the fringes of the Eugenics Society, and grew increasingly estranged from them. Regardless, Stopes fundamentally advocated for birth control in order to ‘improve the gene pool’ of the population rather than for the mental or physical wellbeing of women or because she believed in sexual liberation.
Stopes also reportedly sent a copy of some of her work to Hitler in the 1930s, in order to help inform German birth control clinics which were being set up. However, whatever her feelings towards Hitler’s eugenics project, when he closed birth control clinics in 1939, she completely pivoted, writing to Churchill with potential slogans in support of the war effort.
Marie Stopes died in 1958, leaving her clinics to the Eugenics Society, which perhaps illustrates her sympathies most fully. Just before her death, the Anglican Church finally acknowledged the necessity of birth control, as well as confirming that it did not believe procreation was the sole purpose of sex. Acceptance by the church vindicated Marie’s mission, and her name lives on in the popular imagination for good reason.
Exactly how she should be remembered in the modern world remains a difficult question. Eugenics has been denounced as an abhorrent set of views and is no longer part of mainstream culture. Birth control, on the other hand, has revolutionised the lives of women across the world.
Marie Stopes’ early efforts to spread awareness and knowledge about contraceptive methods and female sexuality (even if only within the confines of marriage) paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its effects have had a major impact in the world we live in today.