AKA Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes
Birthplace: Edinburgh, Scotland
Location of death: Dorking, Surrey, England
Cause of death: Cancer - Breast
Remains: Cremated (ashes scattered at sea)
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Scientist, Author
Executive summary: Scientist and birth control advocate
Marie Stopes was a paleobotanist, author, and social activist best known for her efforts in the early half of the 20th century to promote safe birth control for women. In 1921 Stopes opened Britain's first birth control clinic and, with the aid of second husband Humphrey Roe, she went on to found an entire chain of clinics with chapters in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Marie Stopes was a passionate promoter of women's rights and women's sexual pleasure, and a staunch supporter of eugenics. Although also a poet and novelist, her best-known works are those dealing the topics which one made her so famous, sexuality and birth control. Among her most popular titles were Married Love, Wise Parenthood, and Radiant Motherhood.
Marie Stopes was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1880. Her father, Henry Stopes, was a distinguished scientist specializing in paleobotany, and her mother, Charlotte, was an ardent feminist and suffragette. The victim of sex discrimination, Charlotte Stopes had been barred from attending university classes. She had however been allowed to take the exams, and was thus able to earn a university "certificate", in place of an actual college degree. A generation earlier, Charlotte's mother, J. F. Carmichael, had been the first woman to obtain such a university certificate.
Improving on this tradition, Marie won a science scholarship at the age of 18 and began attending classes at University College, London. Her level of excellence was such that when she took her exams a year early as a trial run, she not only passed but also received dual honors, in Botany and Geology. In a 1902 letter she confided to her mother, "I am the only candidate with honours; the others (men only) all failed, so my name stands alone in the list. It is supposed to be impossible to take one honours in a year, to get two is nice." She then embarked on graduate training in Munich, Germany, graduating in 1904 with her Ph.D. in Science and Philosophy. She joined the scientific staff at the University of Manchester that same year as an assistant lecturer and demonstrator in botany.
By 1911, Marie Stopes had established such a reputation in the specialized field of fossilized plants that the Geological Survey of Canada requested her to visit and pass judgment on certain fossilized fern samples found by paleobotanist Sir William Dawson. In essence, the caliber of her professionalism and skill was of sufficient quality to override the usual prejudice against female scholars. Stopes herself was meanwhile undeterred by having to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to accomplish the task. Indeed, on another occasion she traveled all the way to Japan for the sake of gathering fossil samples.
It must have seemed by this point that she had succeeded admirably in soaring past all of the barriers that had limited her mother and her grandmother -- and that surely now her life would be filled only with increase and accomplishment. But in 1911 Stopes entered into marriage with a fellow scientist, Reginald Gates, and quickly discovered that being highly intelligent was not enough to surmount the challenges of married life. Sexual troubles plagued them from the outset. Anxious and mystified Marie turned at last to doing research at the British Museum, to unravel the source of their troubles: Reginald Gates was impotent.
Unable to resolve the problem with her husband, Stopes eventually went to court, some three years later, and had the marriage legally annulled. The painful experience, which included a public airing of her husband's condition, prompted her to write a book to help others plagued by sexual ignorance. Armed now with an understanding of erections and vaginal intercourse, she penned Married Love, a mix of sage advice about women's sexual cycles and foreplay and women's rights advocacy (both sexual and social). The manuscript offerred such bold, unladylike statements as:
Many men imagine that the turgid condition of an erection is due to the local accumulation of sperms, and that these can only be naturally got rid of by an ejaculation. This is entirely wrong.
The mutually best regulation of intercourse in marriage is to have three or four days of repeated unions, followed by about ten days without any unions at all, unless some strong external stimulus has stirred a mutual desire.
...when the woman is what is physiologically called tumescent... local parts are flushed by the internal blood-supply and to some extent are turgid like those of the man, while a secretion of mucus lubricates the opening of the vagina.
Publishers declined the book on various grounds, both moral and political, with many fretting, in essence, that women were becoming uppity enough without being urged to demand sexual and intellectual satisfaction. But Marie's disappointment would not last long. In 1918 she married wealthy manufacturing magnate Humphrey Roe. With Roe she not only lost her virginity but gained a partner in her crusade for sex education. Roe had seen the terrible toll exacted upon his female workers by constant pregnancy and childbirth, and agreed that something must be done. So he happily footed the publishing fees, and Married Love saw the light of day at last. In an astonishing two weeks' time the book had already sold out, and soon Stopes was swamped with letters from women wanting to learn about birth control.
Although she had studied sperm under the microscope and was well-informed at last about the mechanics of reproduction and lovemaking, Stopes felt relatively ignorant about the specifics of birth control devices. So she consulted with friend Margaret Sanger, a birth control advocate recently chased out of the U.S. on obscenity charges. Sanger gave Stopes an assortment of pamphlets and "French pessary" (most likely diaphragms) and filled her in on all the facts. Stopes then incorporated all this information into Wise Parenthood. Like Married Love, Wise Parenthood found instant popularity and success with the reading public. But it earned tremendous criticism from the Church of England and the Catholic Church, both of which forbade birth control through means other than abstinence. Naturally Stopes worried that she would be arrested for obscenity as was Margaret Sanger, or even sent to prison for it like Annie Besant, but somehow she managed to saunter through unscathed.
Meanwhile, in 1921, Stopes and husband Humphrey Roe founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and opened the first birth control clinic in England. The latter soon expanded into an entire chain of clinics where the all-female staff of nurses and doctors fitted women with "vaginal caps" and educated them on birth control and related facts of life. The clientele were predominantly poor women, and were restricted exclusively to those who were married. Staff members collected scientific data about contraception as well, material that would fuel Stopes' later books. Marie Stopes also designed a new high-domed vaginal cap for better fit and efficiency.
In 1923, when Dr. Halliday Sutherland penned a pro-Catholic tirade against Stopes in his book Birth Control, he stepped over the line into misrepresentation, and Stopes took him to court for libel. She lost, then won at appeal, and then lost again when it went to the House of Lords. But along the way she gained considerable publicity for herself and for the cause of birth control. In time she learned how to fan the flames of such notoriety, even writing inciting letters to Pope Pius XI and chaining a copy of her book Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control to the front of Westminster Cathedral.
After the birth of her son Harry in 1924, Stopes managed to juggle motherhood with her crusades for birth control and other causes. It hardly seemed to slow her down. She introduced a horse-drawn birth control caravan, opened more clinics, and set her sights on opening clinics in other countries. She ultimately opened chapters in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Additionally, Stopes wrote extensively on the subject of birth control, and even published articles on the subject in Indian newspapers.
Never a two-dimensional character, Marie Stopes' strongly opposed reproductive rights for those who carried inheritable defects, mental or physical. In Radiant Motherhood (1920) Stopes suggested that the "sterilization of those totally unfit for parenthood be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory." And in The Control of Parenthood, (1920) and wrote that were she in charge, she would "legislate compulsory sterilization of the insane, feebleminded... revolutionaries... half castes." She opposed the marriage of her own son merely because his bride-to-be wore glasses. And upon her death a large portion of her fortune was bequeathed to the Eugenics Society.
The fact that Stopes' clinics were predominantly aimed at slowing the reproduction of the lower classes, has brought criticism in later years that this was part of her plan to weed out undesirables. Whether this accusation is deserved or not, it remains a fact Stopes had a very real commitment to emancipating all women from unwanted pregnancies, and poor women suffered from this condition more than any other group. Stopes regulary received heart-wrenching pleas from women too poor to feed their children and bewildered about how to stop procreating without abandoning their husbands.
Additionally, Stopes' views -- as bullying, bombastic, and eccentric as they were -- should be viewed within the context of her era, specifically, an era when many of the cures and treatments for inherited diseases now available had yet to be discovered. Eugenics appeared as the panacea for all such social woes, and in an England still steeped in social Darwinism, it was a very seductive panacea indeed. Many believed that the world's great ills, whether social, mental, or physical, were the fault of inferior genes: eliminate the genes, and you would increase the fitness of the species as a whole. Ironically, when Adolf Hitler, that more notorious and brutal proponent of genetic cleansing, came to power, he ordered all of Marie Stopes' books burned. Eugenics and female fulfillment were not a mix he favored.
Meanwhile, Stopes was very actively pursuing her own fulfillment, both professional and sexual. She was very careful to distance herself from charges of depravity by loudly specifying that her sexual advice, and devices, were married persons only. She expressed great outrage and disgust at all forms of sexual "perversion", a tag which she applied to homosexuality, but apparently free love within marriage, if practiced only with the opposite sex, was acceptable. In this she had the full blessing and consent of her husband, as testified in a contract drawn up between them in later years. Stopes also acquired a reputation for dominating those men near and dear to her, especially her husband and son. This reputation was only fueled by her penchant for much younger men, whom she also is said to have dominated.
Marie Stopes spent her final years working for the causes she loved, and most especially writing poetry. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1950s and quietly put her affairs in order, dissolving her Society for Constructive Birth Control, dying in 1958. Yet the clinics that she established were reborn as units of Marie Stopes International. MSI now offers birth control information and materials in some 38 countries around the globe. Wherever legal, the clinics offer safe, medical abortion and related counseling for women from all backgrounds.
Father: Henry Stopes (paleobotanist)
Mother: Charlotte Stopes (suffragette)
Husband: Reginald Gates (scientist, m. 1911, div. 1914)
Husband: Humphrey Verdon-Roe (aircraft manufacturer, m. 1918, two sons)
Son: Harry (b. 1924)
University: BS Botany, University of Munich (1904)
Risk Factors: Breast Cancer
Author of books:
Married Love (1918, non-fiction)
Wise Parenthood (1918, non-fiction)
Radiant Motherhood (1920, non-fiction)
The Control of Parenthood (1920, non-fiction)
Love Songs for Young Lovers (1938, poetry)
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