Marie Stopes and the Birth Control Movement

This week, in the UK, we have been celebrating 100 years of women having the vote. I wrote an article for my University newspaper about Marie Stopes to celebrate the advances of the women’s liberation movement over the last century. I would love it if you checked it out!

Marie Stopes, one of the founders of the British family planning movement, was a highly intellectual, energetic, unconventional and controversial woman. When celebrating women’s rights, she is an individual who is undeniably relevant.

In March 1918, Marie Carmichael Stopes published: ‘Married Love’, the first British sex manual. In spite of her scientific training, Marie Stopes married at the age of 31, with no knowledge of human sexuality. After two years of marriage, and no child, she became concerned that there was something wrong with her marriage. Marie Stopes then spent six months in the British Museum reading every text, of multiple languages, regarding sex and human sexuality. Emerging from the Victorian era, people were both factually ill-informed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters, therefore literature on intercourse at this time was scarce. Upon her reading, Stopes came to the conclusion that her marriage had not be consummated, that she was a virgin and her husband was impotent. By 1917, having acquired a lawyer, the marriage was annulled.

The case of Marie Stopes and her husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates, is not unique. Stopes yearned to emancipate women through education of sex and sexuality. Stopes was a leading figure in the birth control movement, whom encouraged open discussions regarding the typically taboo subject and aspired to strengthen Britain’s slowly deteriorating nation through family limitation and female choice. Following the war, the health of the population was a national crisis. Education was central to this issue. Women were simply not educated on how to take control of their own fertility. Working class families were large, resources were minimal and the health of infants was poor. Thus, Marie Stopes’ sex manual ‘Married Love’, inspired by her own marital problems, ‘crashed English society, like a bombshell’. Within two weeks 2,000 copies were sold and by the end of 1918 a sixth edition of the book was readily available. Stopes’ writing did not end there. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s Stopes wrote more literature centred on sex, as well as contraception. These included: ‘Wise Parenthood: a Treatise on Birth Control or Contraception’, ‘Radiant Motherhood’, ‘Contraception: its theory, history and practice’, ‘Sex and the Young’, ‘The Human Body’ and ‘Enduring Passion’. Her writings inspired the formation of societies to promote contraception and the expectation of equality in sexual relations along with the establishment of birth control clinics in 1921.

Birth control clinics were established in working class districts of numerous British towns and cities. There was even the emergence of other societies advocating birth control, such as the Society for the Constructive Birth Control and the National Birth Control Council (later renamed the Family Planning Association in 1939). These establishments were seen as political, helping advance women’s rights and empower the working classes. Despite her clinical work, literature and speeches evoking fierce opposition, especially from the Roman Catholic Church, she did manage to influence The Church of England. In 1930 the Church of England relaxed its’ stand against birth control, accepting that it could be used within marriage, when husband and wife felt compelled to limit the size of their family. By the 1950’s the working class bodies and sexuality had become signifiers of the modernisation of British class society. Working class women were perceived as being in control of the size of their family. Marie Stopes’ efforts to encourage women to take control of their reproductive ability led to the research allowing the establishment of contraceptive pill in 1961. With this, the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced following the ongoing illegal back street abortions. Over the last 100 years women’s right and methods of contraception have become embedded in our modern day society, evolving and adapting as we do.

The portrayal of Marie Stopes as the epitome of the New Woman and absolute feminist is further illustrated in her research and reputation as an academic, prior to the publishing of her best-selling guide to birth control. Her father, Henry, was a pioneering archaeologist and keen collector of Stone Age artefacts. Her mother, Charlotte, was a suffragette and Shakespearian scholar. The influence of such characters on Marie Stopes was evident from a young age. Stopes was indisputably given the opportunities other women in this period were not. She graduated from University College London in only two years, winning the Gold Medal for biology, becoming what all aspiring young women in the Scientific world wanted to be. Stopes study into botany after the turn of the century led to her being hailed as the youngest Doctor of Science in Britain. However, they were unaware that she was a woman. This detail encouraged those previously hailing her as a phenomenon to withdraw opportunities. But others were inspired to aid her rise in the Scientific world. This divide demonstrates the controversy her work as a woman had on the changing ideas of female capabilities and roles in society.

Marie Stopes career as a birth control activist and high prophet of marital sexual passion for both husband and wife, led to the publication of literature and establishment of institutes that initiated modern day attitudes towards womens’ reproductive health. The Family Planning Clinics, by the 1930’s, were thriving in London, Aberdeen, Leeds and Belfast. Though Marie Stopes remains a controversial figure. The image of Marie Stopes as a feminist pioneer breaking down the taboo surrounding women’s sexuality while advocating their right to decide when to have children, often overshadows her image as a staunch supporter of eugenics, and eugenic birth control. Her eugenic tendencies permeate through her promotion of contraception among the working class. In essence, her philosophy on birth control was centred on having ‘babies in the right place’. Stopes was a believer in removing the ‘undesirables’ in society. The original posters of the ‘Society for Constructive Birth Control’ founded by Stopes, were propagated in the name of ‘Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress’. The idea of the ‘unwanted baby’ assumes a completely different meaning when contextualised within the eugenics movement. Often, Stopes eugenicist beliefs are depicted as an unfortunate footnote to her achievements. It has been suggested she was merely a product of her time, a time when national deterioration and racism was not uncommon. But it begs the question: can this really be ignored?

Contraception has always been about reproductive freedom. For freedom in general. The ability to choose if, and when, to start a family has massive consequences for women in terms of educational and professional aspirations. This, in turn, affects their income as well as the fulfilment of their goals. The debates surrounding women’s choice and contraception are ongoing at an international level. Those anti-contraception arguments refer to ‘natural law’ and the human rights of the unborn child. In the 1920’s female’s that used contraceptives were perceived as promiscuous and generally immoral individuals, unfortunately being a common misconception of the time. This assumption continues today, though a minority view, in the radical anti-contraception movements. Within streams of the Christian Church, including the Catholic and Evangelical, the idea that birth control violates the culture of life remains prominent. However, the more generally accepted ideology regarding contraception in Western societies is that women have the right to do as they wish with their bodies. It has even been perceived as an environmental benefit with over-population becoming a very real problem. From legal and illegal actions, feminists of the Women’s Liberation Movement have employed an abundance of methods to demand social and legislative change. The BBC have made documentaries following the history of birth control, there have been countless marches and strikes for women’s rights, including the smashing of pornography shop windows and flour-bombing of beauty pageants. The policies of reproduction lie at the heart of feminist campaigns across the world. Though birth control is internationally used, and for the most part accepted, it is still hotly debated. But remains an irreplaceable part of our modern day society.

Birth control is often described as one of the most significant advances of the twentieth century. It gave women control. Control over their own bodies, over their family expansion and the ability to decide their own destiny. The emergence of ‘Married Love’, in 1918, sparked feminist debates regarding women’s sexual education, their role in society, their ability to limit reproduction and ultimately inspired questions regarding the rights of womankind. It is undeniable that women benefitted from Marie Stopes birth control advocacy, though her dark underlying ideology cannot be ignored.

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