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The sexual revolution starts here

Ninety years ago, the British women’s movement was in full swing. Having subsided during the early years of World War I when its leading figures declared that the ‘German Peril’ was a more urgent problem than women’s rights, by the end of the war it was once again gaining momentum. In 1918, the vote was finally granted to all women over 30, a piece of legislation only enacted after decades of agitation by suffragettes. In the same year, the first ever sex manual to hit British bookshelves was published – Marie Stopes’s ‘Married Love’ – part paean to romantic heterosexual love, part explicit guide to marital sex. A salacious success which caused an entire nation’s jaws to drop, the book propelled Stopes into the public eye and confirmed her as one of the women’s movement’s boldest personalities.

A paleobotany PhD aged 24 and the first female academic at the University of Manchester, Stopes opened her Mothers’ Clinic in 1921, by which time she had fully turned her energy to feminist causes. She believed opening a clinic was the only way she could ensure that women of all classes could safely access birth control. She was taking a risk. Birth control was legal but considered a shameful taboo by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church (although the former was to perform a volte-face in 1930 and allow it in certain circumstances). The cervical cap, which appeared in the UK in the late nineteenth century, was the main form of contraception available and could be purchased at chemists, but production was controlled by profiteering manufacturers who overcharged for poor-quality contraceptives.

Stopes also knew that women around her felt they had nowhere to go when they needed trustworthy advice about, say, sheaths or pessaries or douching. She herself had only discovered what was anatomically involved in sex a fair while after her first marriage in 1911. It was reportedly while she was reading medical books in the British Library that it dawned on her that her husband was impotent and they’d never actually had sex – soon after, she had the marriage annulled. Given all this, she thought it necessary to speak up.

The last time anyone had brought birth control into the public arena in the UK was in 1877, when Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh published an American-written book on the subject, arguing that working-class families needed to be able to limit how many children they had. They were arrested on charges of obscene libel. 40 years later, the  climate was little better.

With the legalisation of abortion a distant dream (it would not not become law until 1967), Stopes hoped that by making birth control more accessible, fewer women would have to resort to it. Despite medical advances, abortion was dangerous – the choice was between dodgy, often poisonous abortifacients (abortion-inducing substances) or a backstreet surgical procedure. Stopes would very carefully suggest abortion in private correspondence with women who sought advice, but in public, promoting contraception proved incendiary enough. In 1922, Halliday Sutherland, a Roman Catholic doctor, published a polemic against birth control in which he quoted another doctor saying that Stopes’s contraception methods were “the most harmful of which I have had experience”. True to her pugnacious character, Stopes sued him for libel.

Press attention from the high-profile Stopes/Sutherland case caused sales of Stopes’s three books – ‘Married Love’, ‘Wise Parenthood’ (a detailed guide to contraception) and ‘Radiant Motherhood’ (like ‘Married Love’, but with children clambering all over that marriage bed) to skyrocket. It’s tough to tell which her audience appreciated more – Stopes’s sex advice or the kicks they got from her sometimes fanciful stylings. She often sounded like a strange echo of her famously florid contemporary DH Lawrence; in ‘Married Love’ Stopes describes orgasm, for example, as “the half-swooning sense of flux which overtakes the spirit in that eternal moment at the apex of rapture”. There’s more where that came from, and it includes the words “cosmic space”. On that note, it should be no surprise that Stopes was also a poet – although reportedly quite a bad one. Either way, the publicity gave much-needed oxygen to the era’s birth control movement.

But Stopes’s passion stopped neither at her clarion calls for women’s reproductive freedom nor at her enthusiasm for the “flaming tides” of sex. It was also evident in the way she expressed her commitment to eugenics. Cringe-worthy blustering against the ills of “unsound stock” features everywhere in her writing, and makes for uncomfortable reading. The only extant copy of ‘Wise Parenthood’ on the internet is on – and while it’s essentially a utilitarian tract on married sex full of sensitive, unsqueamish advice on using various birth control devices, eugenics is rarely far away: “The only right rule in marriage,” Stopes writes in it, “is that which gives the greatest sum of total health and happiness to the two concerned, for the benefit of the nation and the race.”

Stopes was more than a little obsessed with creating a strong and healthy nation. In the faintly frightening final chapter of ‘Radiant Motherhood’ called ‘A New and Irradiated Race’, she rails against “the reckless increase of the debased” and dreams of a world in which “the vernal bodily beauty and unsullied spiritual power of those then growing up will surpass anything that we know today except among the rare and gifted few”. Swept up by a vision of nation-building through muscle-building, she was unable to divorce birth control from hopes of population perfection.

“Stopes has been given a hard time in the media. Whenever she surfaces, controversial details of her life
are frequently offered up”

Her eugenicist creed is alarming, yet Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library archivist and editor of ‘Marie Stopes: Birth Control and Other Writings’, reminds us, “Although unacceptable now, eugenics was pervasive at the time – and besides, Stopes was far from an orthodox eugenicist. She was a reform eugenicist with maverick views.” A maverick eugenicist is a tricky concept for us to get to grips with – and accordingly, Stopes has traditionally been given a hard time in the media. Whenever she surfaces, controversial details of her life are frequently offered up, including: her membership of the Eugenics Society and the clinics she left to it in her will; her gift of a book of her own poems to Hitler (imploring him to share them with “the young people of your nation”); her attendance at the 1936 Nazi International Congress for Population Science; and, famously, the omission from her will of her only son because he had married a woman with myopia.

But it’s rarely mentioned, as Hall points out, that when Stopes’s agent approached her in 1936 to write a book about eugenics, she said: “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.” Her ultimate cause was feminist. She wanted more than anything to make birth control accessible to all women so they could choose when to have babies. It’s just a shame that, like so many others, she was into the “healthy race” stuff too.

The obvious question is: Does this matter now? If Stopes’s legacy has been beneficial to women the world over, who cares if her motives were dodgy? Marie Stopes International, founded in 1976 (after the original clinic went bankrupt), is keen to extract the best from it and leave it at that. “We take our inspiration from what Marie Stopes achieved, not what she believed,” says a Marie Stopes International spokesperson.

Besides, the organisation’s achievements speak for themselves. In Bangladesh, it protects more than a million women from unwanted pregnancy each year. In Afghanistan, it works with government ministries to provide sexual and reproductive health services to hundreds of thousands of people and has trained more than a 1,000 health professionals. Worldwide, it has protected more than 18 million couples from unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion.

Despite the freedoms Stopes started to encourage with the opening of that first small clinic, abortion remains contentious. In the US in February and March, the battle raged over women’s healthcare organisation Planned Parenthood. Republicans wanted to scrap its funding because they claimed that it’s used for abortions. It isn’t – it’s used for other women’s health services, like free contraception, STD testing and cancer screening, which will disappear if the cuts go through. The US has, of course, always been more puritanical about women’s reproductive rights than the UK. But if family planning has to fight for survival even in today’s liberal societies, it shows how courageous Stopes was in far tougher times.

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