Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution: What makes a feminist icon?

Marie Stopes book coverWho decides who gets to be a feminist icon? Is being a woman who achieved something awesome enough? I guess not… Exhibit A: Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps the criteria is to have done something awesome whilst simultaneously helping other women? If so, why haven’t I heard more about Marie Stopes?

I knew the name of course – any pro-choice feminist will surely recognise the name of the well-known family planning organisation. But I knew absolutely nothing about her. That’s why, a year or so ago, I picked up a second-hand copy of a book titled Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. I wasn’t looking for something on her specifically – honestly, it had never even occurred to me to find out anything about her – but I spotted the title and it made me want to know who she actually was.

I’m not a big reader of biographies, or non-fiction generally, so the book languished on the shelf for a long time. Once or twice I even picked it off the shelf, fully intending to read it, before being lured away by the seductive whispers of all the fiction on my shelves. I finally decided to pick it up and read it last week, as part of my Mount TBR challenge.

I usually find biographies a bit of a chore, which is probably why I put this one off for so long, but Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution is anything but. Dr Stopes had a fascinating life. A doctor of paleobotany (the study of plant fossils), she spent her early life travelling around the world, travelling to Japan on a scientific mission in the early 1900s when such travel by an unaccompanied woman was unheard of, and even volunteering to accompany Captain Scott on his expedition to Antarctica to collect more fossils (he turned her down). After earning her PhD from the University of Munich, she subsequently earned a DSc from University College London, the youngest person in Britain to have done so. She was also the first female academic of the University of Manchester.

Despite her formidable academic achievements, she made her name in a subject quite outside of her field of expertise: birth control and female sexuality. She wrote a book called Married Love, inspired by her own experiences of her first marriage: her husband was (probably) impotent, but as a well-brought-up young woman who had never had any kind of sex education, she was unaware of the mechanics of sex and thus it was several years before she realised that the marriage was unconsummated (it was later annulled for this reason). There is some controversy as to whether she was in fact as ignorant as she claimed – there are some letters from the time implying that she offered contraceptive advice to a chaplain she’d met on her travels, so she must have known at least something about how it was supposed to work, if only from her scientific studies – but she always maintained that it was her unhappy experience as a “virgin wife” that inspired her to write Married Love.

The book took a long time to be published, as few publishers would take a risk on a subject most deemed to be obscene. When it eventually was published, shortly before the first world war, it caused a sensation. The book contained frank, honest descriptions of what sex actually involved: a topic rarely discussed, even among the medical profession; and that most young women, and many men, entered marriage almost entirely ignorant of. It was most radical for arguing that women also had sexual desires, equal to those of men – something that is still occasionally disputed today!

“Marie had produced the first book about sex technique for women. In it she had dared to stake a claim for female sexuality, for women’s sexual needs and sexual rights. Her views challenged the centuries of prejudice and superstition and the accretions of religious teaching which saw women’s bodies and women’s attractions as desirable but also dirty and corrupting…No less important was her advice to young husbands…at a time when husbands would still demand ‘marital rights’ without considering their wives feelings.”

The book sold in enormous quantities, despite disapproval from many quarters:

“[girls] were to be protected from any guilty knowledge. Sex among the poor was seen as particularly dangerous, and high-minded women…regarded it as their duty to save and protect poor women from the lust of men and the depravity of sex”.

Married Love contained only a few pages on the topic of birth control – Dr Stopes was a firm believer that women should be able to control how many children they had, but birth control at the time was incredibly difficult to access, due to ignorance in the medical profession (doctors were rarely trained in such matters) and religious prejudice against the idea. When, after publication, she was deluged with letters from women desperate for advice on how to limit the sizes of their families, Dr Stopes realised the need for further campaigning in this area. She published a book called Wise Parenthood, detailing techniques of birth control – the title was deliberately chosen as she realised that to make birth control acceptable and respectable, she had to put the focus on planning for wanted children, rather than avoiding unwanted children. She also targeted the book very specifically at married women, insisting that it was not to be sold to unmarried women, partly as a way to avoid the accusation that she was encouraging consequence-free promiscuity.

Dr Stopes campaigned for years to make birth control acceptable and widely available, eventually founding the Marie Stopes birth control clinic along with her husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe. Although today, Marie Stopes International provides abortions alongside other family planning services, it is notable that Marie Stopes herself was strongly opposed to abortion.

If her lifetime fighting for women’s rights to control their own fertility wasn’t enough, there was one passage in the book that cemented her status as Feminist Icon for me. Here is a letter she wrote, in response to people’s confusion over what to call her once she had married:

“In the first place, notwithstanding my marriage, my legal name is Marie C Stopes. As I have been for some time, and still am entitled to the courtesy title of ‘Doctor’ the situation is relieved of any difficulty regarding the application of either ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ to that name. Privately, for the few friends who cannot escape the bonds of custom, I add the name of my husband by hyphen – Stopes-Gates. This name we also use when he and I wish to stand coupled on any occasion.

“When a woman marries, it is commonly the custom for her to take her husband’s name…in the eyes of the law she makes this change voluntarily…I have taken the necessary steps to retain my own name as my legal one…and it is also the name I use in all my scientific work. It is, in short, my real name.”

The date of that letter? 1911. Nineteen-fricking-eleven, people. Women couldn’t even vote then. Also, as someone who has occasionally toyed with the idea of getting a PhD purely so I could have a snarky answer for people who ask if I am “Miss or Mrs” (it’s Ms, thank you!), I completely love her snide reference to “difficulty regarding the application of either ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss'”.

So, that’s my argument for Marie-Stopes-as-feminist-icon. Now for the argument against.

First, she held a number of abhorrent views. She was an advocate of eugenics (she even sent a copy of one of her books to Hitler, one month before the second world war broke out), and her crusade for birth control was in part motivated by a desire to stop the “lower classes” from over-breeding. I don’t mean to imply that that’s all it was about – it’s clear from her writings that she was deeply moved by the plight of women ground down from having given birth to child after child that they could not afford to feed – but there is an unpleasant undercurrent of eugenics running through her work.

She was also, by the sounds of things, quite an unpleasant person. As with many people of exceptionally high intelligence, she had very little modesty or tact. The biography is littered with extracts from staggeringly condescending and insulting letters she wrote to colleagues that she considered intellectually inferior. Although I thought the biography went out of its way a little to stress just what a nasty woman she could be – we don’t tend to hold male pioneers to such high standards of behaviour, after all – there were parts of the book that made quite uncomfortable reading. I was particularly struck by her treatment of the boys she attempted to adopt as brothers for her only child, Harry: she wanted several children but had Harry quite late in life, so wasn’t able to conceive a sibling for him. She adopted several boys for short periods, to “trial” them as brothers for her son, but always decided they weren’t good enough – not clever enough, not beautiful enough, not able to recite the alphabet flawlessly at the age of five (!) – so sent them back to whatever family or home she had adopted them from.

Although she was a pioneer of birth control in the UK, she deeply resented later organisations and individuals that tried to join her campaign, and refused to work with them. She thought that her work, and her organisation, should be the sole advocate of birth control, and saw other emerging organisations as competitors to her status as the leading expert on the subject. She was also dogmatic in her approach, to the point of continuing to advocate for particular forms of birth control that she considered best, in the face of increasing medical evidence against them. Dr Stopes was also incredibly paranoid: she wrote plays and poetry in addition to her scientific works, and was convinced that their lack of success was down to a Roman Catholic conspiracy against her, due to her work on birth control – she appeared to believe that Catholics controlled most of the British press and publishing houses at the time.

So, I’m a bit conflicted. Can a eugenicist, and a woman who refused out of personal vanity to work with others to further a common cause, really be considered a feminist icon? On the other hand, should we judge someone who achieved so much to improve women’s lives on the basis of some unfortunate views and her difficult personality? I’d be interested to hear what others think about this.

This book was a complete departure from my normal reading matter, but I am thoroughly glad I read it. It’s been fascinating to learn so much about a woman who’s name was so familiar, but whom I knew so little about (even her Wikipedia page is surprisingly sparse! Might have to add to that…)

And finally, just wanted to pull out one final quote from the biography that made me fall in love with Dr Stopes a little bit:

“[In 1947] Marie sent her book [Married Love] to the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip as a wedding gift for them to read together. The lady-in-waiting , Margaret Plymouth, replied thanking the author for the gift ‘which Her Royal Highness is most pleased to accept’.”

Yep: Marie Stopes sent a book of sex tips to the future Queen. Gotta love her.

Leave a comment


  1. Wow! This is fascinating.. An interesting life but not everyone is nice 😦
    But back then a lot of people were a bit odd, intruiging.

  2. sarah

     /  February 15, 2012

    Ooh, definitely a tricky one. I sometimes find it hard to separate my love of someone’s work (be it literary, musical, political, whatever) from their personality, but it makes it hard to maintain any icons on pedestals – sometimes it’s easier not to know! I’m less bothered by her lack of modesty (in a way, that too was fighting against the norm for women – and still would be today!), but the eugenics is a hard one to swallow. Love the section on married names though!

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree that sometimes it may be better not to know too much about your icons – after all, really their work should stand on its own, so I do kinda think that whatever unfortunate views Dr Stopes may have held, it shouldn’t detract from all that she achieved.

      Re the modesty thing: it’s not so much her lack of modesty that bothered me – after all, she was a phenomenally intelligent, successful women, so why should we expect her to have been modest about that! It’s more that she came across, in this biography at least, as being self-centered to the point of actively working against people who could have helped in the same field of birth control.

  3. What a fascinating post. Marie Stopes was clearly fearless and way ahead of her time. Being cold-bloodedly selective about her adoption plans, and aligning herself in any way with Hitler, however – well, lets just say she wouldn’t have been on my Christmas card list!


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