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Leading women

'I had hopes no women would write such books': The life of Marie Stopes


On World Contraception Day, Professor Jenny Higham - Leading Woman and Principal of St George's - explores the life and legacy of another Leading Woman, Marie Stopes.

To say that Marie Stopes was a contentious woman would be something of an understatement, and also a huge over-simplification. She was an academic, a pioneer, a poet and playwright, and her name will always be synonymous with birth control. This latter passion, with the potential to liberate women from a relentless and exhausting cycle of pregnancy, lactation and further pregnancy, has had enormous impact.

From botany to birth control: Marie's academic career

Stopes was born, in 1880, into a wealthy, professional family and her mother was a noted Shakespearean scholar and women’s rights campaigner – so it was hardly surprising that Marie should also be an independent thinker and keen student. She gained a 1st in Geology from University College London in only two years by dint of attending both day and night schools, and also won the Gold Medal for Botany. This was followed by a PhD in Botany from the University of Munich (the only woman amongst 400 men) and in the same year was one of the first women to be admitted to the Linnean Society. She then became the University of Manchester’s first female academic, lecturing in Palaeobotany.
In 1911, she married Reginald Ruggles Gates, a Canadian Botanist. However, in 1914 the marriage was annulled. Marie claimed that her husband was impotent and that the marriage had never been consummated – he maintained that she used birth control throughout her marriage. Whatever the truth of this is, her interest in birth control certainly came to the fore after the annulment and led to the publication of Married Love in 1918.

Publishing Married Love

The path to publication was not an easy one. No publisher wanted to be associated with such a scandalous book, controversial for its subject matter, particularly its acknowledgement that women, too, had sexual needs. However, in 1917, she met Humphrey Verdon Roe, a successful businessman and philanthropist. He had a particular interest in birth control, having seen the effect on women from having too many babies in his home city of Manchester and he had tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a birth control clinic there. They would marry the next year and in the meantime, he decided to finance Marie’s book.

Title page of Married Love

Married Love was a runaway success. Within a fortnight of publication, it sold 2000 copies and within the year a six further editions were produced. It was read by both men and women and across the classes. For us, brought up as we are on frank discussions on television, the internet and in magazines, the language seems quaint, archaic and harmless. However, it was as if Marie had dropped a bomb onto the medical and religious establishments. Outrage followed. How dare this woman – who wasn’t even a medical doctor! – publish such advice? The press was agog and Marie found herself being admonished along the lines of a letter written to her by a Catholic Priest, Father Zulueta:

Madam… I consider it most useful to pray God that your writings may not do as much injury to morals - to the ignorant poor especially - which they are calculated to do…....I had hopes no women would write such books.

Later work and legacy

Other books followed, including Radiant Motherhood, in which she advocated the sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood to be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory. During her life, Stopes increasingly identified with the eugenics movement, although her actions were belied by her compassion towards the many women to whom she wrote personally when they asked for advice. However, in 1921, the same year that she opened her first family planning clinic, she joined the Eugenics Society - an association making her a problematic heroine for the modern era.

1923 was another busy year for Marie. Her play, Our Ostriches, concerning the plight of working class women who constantly bear children, was put on at the Royal Court and ran for a successful 91 well-attended performances; a film called Maisie’s Marriage, based on Married Love was also released that year. Less happily, she sued Halliday Sutherland, a doctor, for libel concerning the contraceptive cap – and lost. The legal costs were huge.

In 1925, needing a larger site, the clinic moved to Whitfield Street, just off Tottenham Court Road and Marie was a tireless fundraiser. She died in 1958, aged 77, of breast cancer, after opening several clinics across Britain. Today, Whitfield Street remains the central London site for women’s healthcare charity Marie Stopes UK.

Marie Stopes House in Whitfield Street, London

Regrettably, now, the legacy of Marie Stopes, pioneer is irredeemably tangled with that of Marie Stopes, eugenicist – although it should be remembered that her views were not unusual amongst the influencers and academics of that period. Despite her extreme beliefs, she was a remarkable woman who made life a great deal more bearable for women of all classes.