Marie Stopes (1880-1958)
“Each coming together of man and wife, even if they have been mated for many years, should be a fresh adventure; each winning should necessitate a fresh wooing”
While birth control clinics and family planning have become relatively accessible today, we should not forget its first advocates. In Britain, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was one of the leading advocates for family planning and women’s rights during the early twentieth century. A pioneer for women in the sciences and a women’s health advocate, she helped women across Britain to gain access to birth control methods. However, she was also an advocate for eugenics, demonstrating the complex and close relationship between the scientific development of birth control, family planning, and the eugenics movement.
Stopes was born in Edinburgh, Scottland, in October 1880 to an archaeologist father and a scholarly, suffragist mother. Her father, Henry Stopes, was a brewer, engineer, architect and paleontologist from Colchester. Her mother, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, was a Shakespearean scholar and women’s rights campaigner from Edinburgh. Both of her parents were members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where they had met. Marie was taken to meetings where was introduced to famous scholars of the day. At first, she was home-schooled, but from 1892 to 1894 she attended St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh. During her studies at the North London Collegiate School for Girls between 1894 to 1899 she demonstrated great potential in the sciences and she decided to pursue higher education. Even though her parents advised her to attend a women’s university, Stopes decided to apply to the Science Faculty of the University College London. There, she defied the low expectations of her professors and advisors, ultimately graduating with a Bachelor’s in Science in 1992. Afterwards, she went onto Munich University which awarded her a Doctorate in botany in 1904. She became one of the few women in the period to achieve such high honors in the sciences.
In 1904, she was one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. She was also Fellow and part-time Lecturer in Palaeobotany at University College, London until 1920. In addition, she held the post of Lecturer in Palaeobotany at the University of Manchester from 1904 to 1910 and became the first female academic of that university. Marie Stopes made great contributions in scientific research and published her findings in two books: In 1910, the Journal from Japan: a daily record of life as seen by a scientistcame out, and in 1918, the Monograph on the constitution of coal. Her scientific research on coal, coal balls, and plant specimens became helpful during World War I and contributed to the progress of paleobotany, the study of plants.
In 1913 Stope met the American birth control activist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), who gave a talk on birth control at a Fabian Society meeting in London. Sanger propelled Stolpe to study marriage issues and birth control. Stopes began to write a book about the way she thought marriage should work, which was finished by the end of 1913. It was inspired by her experiences in her first short and quickly divorced marriage. She offered the book to several publishers, but they all refused it because they thought it too controversial. When Binnie Dunlop, secretary of the Malthusian League, introduced her to Humphrey Verdon Roe (1878-1949)—Stopes’ future second husband—in 1917, she received the boost that helped her publish her book. Roe was a philanthropist interested in birth control; he paid Fifield & Co. to publish the work. The book titled Marriage Love and Love in Marriagecame out in 1918 and was an instant success. It became a bestseller and made five editions in the first year. It elevated Stopes to national prominence.
Soon after, she went on to publish her next book that came out one year later, Wise Parenthood: a Book for Married People, a manual on birth control. Many people searched out Stopes advice on marriage and birth control. In her books, she advocated for passion and strong communication in a relationship, while also urging couples to become equals and encouraging women to seek access to birth control. Because of her approach to marriage and birth control, traditional institutions, such as the church, strongly opposed her work.
Amidst the release of her books, Stopes was able to find her second partner, Humphrey Roe. Stopes and Roe shared similar viewpoints, particularly on women’s access to birth control. Encouraged by her husband, Stopes resigned her lectureship at University College, London at the end of 1920 to concentrate on the founding of a birth control clinic. For the support of this project she initiated the founding of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, a support organization for the clinic. The aims of the Society were:
…to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and the generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C.3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work.
By working together, Roe and Stopes opened Britain’s first birth control clinic in London in March 1921. The clinic helped many women looking for contraceptive advice and services, though not abortions. This clinic, operated by midwives and visiting doctors, was open to all married women. While Stopes wanted to prevent women from practicing dangerous amateur abortions, she was also a strong advocate of eugenics. As the above quote indicates, she believed that the poor and those “unfit” for childrearing were procreating on too large a scale, which would ultimately cause harm to society and the health of its population. By providing birth control, she hoped to stem the birth of the poor, the intellectually and physically disabled, and racial minorities.
The birth control clinic opened by Stopes and Roe allowed women to make choices about their reproduction. Despite pushback from conservative institutions, the government did not close it down. Their birth control clinic became quickly so successful that the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress founded similar clinics in other parts of Britain, ultimately leading to a network of multiple clinics. Even after Stope’s death in 1958, the clinics of the Society continued to operate. Due to financial distress, however, the Society and its clinics went bankrupt in 1975.
However, her legacy continued when the Marie Stopes International Organization was established in 1976 as an international non-governmental organization (NGO) working on sexual and reproductive health. The global partnership took over responsibility for the main clinic, and in 1978 it began its work overseas in New Delhi, India. Since then the organization has grown steadily; today it works in over forty countries, has 452 clinics and has offices in London, Brussels, Melbourne and in the US.
Marie Stopes was undeniably influential in the realm of marriage and sexual health. She provided help to many women and families that wanted access to birth control. Her accomplishments in science paved the way for other women who have aspired to careers in the field. Her literary works, despite the pushback they received, prompted a social change in gender relations and encouraged couples to seek help in order to improve their relationships. She began with one birth control clinic, but now the organization named after her provides family planning services to women globally.
Carina Ochoa, Chemistry and Women’s and Gender Studies, Class of 2018
Literature and Websites
- “Marie Stopes (1880 – 1958).” BBC,at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/stopes_marie_carmichael.shtml (Accessed April 19, 2018).
- “Marie Stopes,” Wikipedia,at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Stopes (Accessed April 19, 2018).
- “Marie Stopes: a turbo-Darwinist ranter, but right about birth control.” The Guardian, at https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2011/sep/02/marie-stopes-right-birth-control. Accessed April 19, 2018).
- Fuchs, Rachel and Victoria Thompson. Women in Nineteenth-Century Europe, 37-38. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Green, Stephanie. The Public Lives of Charlotte and Marie Stopes, 82-103. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.