Skip to Content

Marie Stopes, Reformer

There are no good or bad reforms. Some people believe there are bad and good reformers. A prototype of the former might be, say, David Lloyd George. Cynical, ruthless, utterly venal and depraved, be actually told the House of Commons during the first World War that he could have put one million more men in the trenches by 1916 if it bad adopted his Health Insurance Act in its entirety in 1911.

Another such slick operator was the Labour Party's Herbert Morrison, who knew very well what it was all about, but chose to kid the voters that the London Transport Act was "an instalment of Socialism". On the other side of the coin, our admiration is often asked for the genuinely sincere and self-sacrificing idealist who, consumed by the justice or logic (apparent) of some proposal, devotes his or her life to its implementation. Such a one was undoubtedly Marie Carmichael Stopes.

Holder of practically every scholarship that could be held by a woman in this country, she went to Munich to qualify as a Doctor of Philosophy. This last was used to whip up feeling against her, exploiting anti-German prejudice in 1919-20, by Dr. Halliday Sutherland, author of the book Birth Control.

After two unsatisfactory attempts at marriage—the first a purely platonic relationship with a Japanese professor of botany, the second with an American botanist who was incapable—she finally met and married Humphrey Verdon Roe, a partner in the Avro aircraft firm (later of Lancaster bomber fame) and therefore a wealthy man.

Marie herself was one of the most highly qualified botanists in the world, the first woman lecturer at Manchester University, and Staff researcher into the origin of coal. In this post she was sent all over the world by the Board of Trade, receiving £600 a year (£200 more than an MP in those days), and was the author of twenty-five volumes of data on her subject. After the second marriage disaster she went to Northumberland, and started in 1914 the first rough draft of the book which four years later outraged the Catholic Church, "startled the world", and precipitated a libel action which lasted six months and went to the House of Lords.

Its title was Married Love. What was the main simple proposition which so upset people, especially men? The idea Marie put up was that women also could, and should, enjoy sexual intercourse; that they couldn't if they were terrified most of the time that it would result in another unwanted baby; that marriages could not be happy under those circumstances and that if women could be protected against incessant pregnancy by contraception, marriages would last and be successful.

The book was a bombshell. Twenty-eight editions, translated into thirteen foreign languages; beautifully written, with a delicacy even her detractors could not deny. Marie rapidly discovered that she had lifted the lid of a seething cauldron. Letters poured in, in thousands, from unhappy wives (and husbands). So much so that a second book Wise Parenthood; dealing more fully with the mechanics of birth control, was issued — with the same success.

Now Marie, with her husband, who supported her ideas quite independently and could finance her, took the step which to the Catholic Church was the last straw. Like all good reformers, they decided to do something "practical". They rented a small house in the slums of Islington in London and opened the first free birth-control clinic. No fees were charged, no inquisitive questions asked. Poor women came in hundreds to be fitted with the rubber check pessary which so upset Halliday Sutherland and his Church. They claimed that it was dangerous and that this woman, with a German degree, was experimenting on poor women like rabbits.

Marie and her husband naively challenged Sutherland to debate, without result. Then, filled with indignation at the downright misrepresentation, she issued a writ for libel against Sutherland on 12th May 1922. The cream of the medical profession was called in witness, dividing itself about evenly for and against the rubber cheek pessary, But what some of the gynaecologists' evidence revealed was staggering.

There was the woman who said she was kicked downstairs "every time she announced another baby". The girl of 22 who bad had six children since 16, all aborted by her mother. The two mental defectives who had spawned ten children, all mentally or physically deficient. The dozens of couples who had been married for years without children, due to sheer ignorance of simple physical functions.

Asked by Sir Patrick Hastings what was the object of the Society she had founded, Marie Stopes replied:

    "The object of the Society is to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for many years of the reduction of the birth rate on the part of the wise, thrifty, well contented and generally sound members of our community; and the reckless breeding of the C3 end, the semi-feeble-minded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the scale. It was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked on this work."


    "Is the reduction of the birth rate any part at all of your campaign?"


    "Not reduction in the total birth rate, but reduction in the birth rate at the wrong part and increase of the birth rate at the right end of the social scale."

And there you have it! Poor Marie may have been one of the world's greatest experts on coal, but she was a babe unborn in economics. Summed up, her idea was: More kids for the rich, less for the poor.

Now, it is certainly true that the capitalists do not like a falling working-class birth rate. And when it falls they take measures to increase it, the most popular being family allowances. As reference to our pamphlet Family Allowances will show, by the simple expedient of a government grant, the wages of single childless men and women are reduced to pay a premium or bonus to those producing children.

Dictators in the past have dramatized the situation. Stalin, by issuing a medal and a certificate to the fecund — "Mother of the Soviet Union" — while Mussolini gave the fruitful ones a suite of furniture. More practical, of course, because you can put kids to bed on a sofa but they cannot eat medals.

Marie lost her case in the Lords, having won it on appeal. There is evidence that, like so many dedicated reformers, she was obsessed, In 1920 she had written an appeal to the Bishops' Convocation of the Church of England claiming that she was "God's Prophet". Funnily enough, the Bishops craftily adopted most of her points about marriage forty years later; while even today, exponents of the over-population theory still quote her.

Had Marie studied economics with the avidity she displayed in botany, she might have discovered that whether the "right end" of the social scale, the wealthy, have large or small families is immaterial. What is decisive is that they have large bank balances. Nevertheless, we can remember Marie Stopes with regard for the fact that she chucked away comfort, affluence and status to fight for what she thought right, suffering abuse and punishment, She exposed the sexual subjection of working-class women, spread an enormous amount of knowledge previously proscribed; and if today millions of working-class girls are no longer as ignorant as Mum was, a certain amount of credit must go to Marie Stopes.