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How Marie Stopes revolutionised British women’s sex lives

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Moya Crockett
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The campaigner is famous for making information about sex widely accessible – but she had many beliefs we would now find abhorrent. 

Imagine you’re a married 30-something woman living in London 100 years ago. You already have seven children, and the thought of getting pregnant again horrifies and frightens you. But you don’t know how to prevent it, and you don’t know how to say no to your husband. As far as options go, you have almost nil.

It’s easy to forget, from the vantage point of 2018, just how much women’s understanding of sex was once shrouded in secrecy, myth and rumour. Modern sex education in schools is currently in need of a serious upgrade, but at least it exists: a century ago, the very idea would have been unthinkable. In the 1910s, there was almost no publicly available information about birth control, and men were legally allowed to rape their wives. As a result, women all over the country were virtual slaves to their reproductive systems, forced to bear child after child after child.

Not only that, but female sexuality was widely repressed, denied and shamed. Talking openly about sex was simply not something that respectable women did. Until, that is, that Edinburgh-born scientist Marie Stopes published her revolutionary book Married Love in March 1918.

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The book, which contained practical advice about how to maintain a satisfying sex life within a happy marriage, was considered seriously radical upon its release. Aimed at both men and women, it openly acknowledged the existence of female sexual desire, and depicted the ideal marriage as a meeting of equals. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stopes supported the women’s suffrage movement, which had resulted in some women in Britain getting the vote shortly before her book was published. 

Stopes with her second husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe 

At several points in the book, Stopes states firmly that men should never force their wives to have sex if they don’t want to. “It should be realised that a man does not woo and win a woman once for all when he marries her: he must woo her before every separate act of coitus,” she writes at one point. (Consent! She’s talking about consent!)

Elsewhere, she warns that no sex should “take place unless the woman also desires it”. The argument that marriage should be enjoyable for women – that they deserved to find joy, pleasure and satisfaction in a consensual romantic, sexual and domestic relationship – had never before been put forth in such a frank, public way.

Married Love was banned in the US, and Stopes faced fierce opposition from churches, the medical establishment and the press in Britain. But that didn’t stop the book from being a runaway success. Its first run sold out almost at once, and it was on its sixth printing within a fortnight.

Stopes strongly opposed abortion, but she also believed women should be educated so they could prevent unwanted pregnancies. Shortly after the publication of Married Love, she released a follow-up book: Wise Parenthood: A Book for Married People, a manual on birth control. Like its predecessor, it was wildly popular. 

A scene from the opera Dear Marie Stopes

As Stopes’ fame grew, thousands and thousands of her readers wrote to her for advice about sex and birth control, and she endeavoured to reply to as many of them as possible. Dear Marie Stopes, an opera based on some of those letters, is due to run at the Wellcome Collection in London as part of the Tete-a-Tete festival on 9, 11 and 12 August.

Married Love felt like such a sea change because it was the first time this wealth of knowledge was made available to the public the world over,” Nina Brazier, the opera’s director, tells Stylist.co.uk.

“Many women didn’t know how to start or stop having children. Some didn’t even know what sex was.

“Stopes also explained female sexuality and female libido in great detail, giving permission for women to have equal sexual desire to men and the right to bodily freedom for the first time.”

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Another scene from Dear Marie Stopes 

Stopes was inspired to write Married Love after her own experience in an unhappy marriage. Before reinventing herself as a sex educator and birth control campaigner, she had worked as a botanist, and in 1904 became the first female academic at the University of Manchester. In 1910, she was introduced to her first husband Reginald Ruggles Gates while on a research trip in Canada.

They got engaged two days after they met and wed three months later, but it didn’t last. Gates was impotent, and as a result their relationship was never consummated. The marriage was annulled in 1914. 

“In my own marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a price should be placed at the service of humanity,” Stopes wrote in the introduction to Married Love.

Her second husband, the philanthropist Humphrey Verdon Roe, was also interested in birth control. In 1920, Stopes resigned from a lecturing post at UCL to focus all her attentions on launching a birth control clinic in London, and founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress to support the initiative. 

The Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland was the first to offer private abortions to women in the country in 2012 

This is where Stopes’ deeply troubling views about family planning begin to rear their head. Notice that incongruous reference to “Racial Progress”? While she was lightyears ahead of her time in many of her beliefs about women’s rights and sexuality, Stopes was also a eugenicist who held beliefs we would now consider shockingly ableist, and an unabashed racist who condemned interracial relationships.

She called for those deemed unfit for parenthood to be compulsorily sterilised, and – incredibly – disowned her only son when he married a woman with eye problems, arguing that any children they had could inherit the condition. Indeed, The Guardian has described Stopes’ eugenicist beliefs as “slightly to the right of Hitler’s”, thanks to her incredibly broad definition of what made a person unfit to reproduce.

Stopes’ eugenicist beliefs are often treated as a dark appendix to the broader, uplifting story of her life and achievements. But in reality, they were central to her mission to educate women, particularly poorer women, about the importance of birth control. One of her biographers, June Rose, described Stopes as believing in an ideal society where “only the best and the beautiful should survive”.

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To that end, Stopes openly admitted that she hoped birth control would counteract the “reckless breeding” of what she saw as “the worst end of our community”: poor people, “the semi-feebleminded” and “the careless”. 

The ‘Racial’ cap invented by Marie Stopes 

It’s impossible to whitewash this part of Stopes’ story: these beliefs were a central part of her identity. But while we might not agree with why she wanted to deter some women from having children, we can recognise how transformative it was for so many women – of all backgrounds – to suddenly have access to information about birth control.

In 1921, Stopes and Roe opened the first birth control centre in the British empire, the Mothers’ Clinic in north London. Over the next two decades, she would expand her network of family planning clinics, opening branches in Leeds, Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff and Swansea. Run by midwives and visiting doctors, these clinics offered birth control advice and contraceptives to all married women seeking knowledge about reproductive health.

The most popular form of contraception offered at the London clinic was a cervical cap designed by Stopes, which perfectly encapsulates the contradictory sides of her story. It was marketed as the “Racial” cap, referencing her belief in racial purity – yet it helped a great many women take control of their bodies for the first time.

Stopes’ story is a complex one, and we should resist the urge to valorise her as a hero or dismiss her contributions entirely. Few people are entirely admirable or entirely despicable, and some of the most influential feminists of the last two centuries held views that many women would find deeply problematic in 2018. If we are to look back at their achievements, we must also be prepared to reckon with their flaws – and we can abhor Stopes’ eugenicist beliefs while appreciating the difference she made to thousands of women’s lives.

And today, the NGO that evolved from Stopes’ first clinic – Marie Stopes International – provides contraception and safe abortion services to women in more than 30 countries worldwide. That, at least, is worth celebrating.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / Clare Shovelton 

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Moya Crockett

Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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