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Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes

Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes

1880-1958

British Social Reformer, Botanist, and Writer

In 1921 Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in Great Britain. She is best known for her crusade to gain reproductive freedom for women, but that was only a third of her career. Until about 1914 she was a scientist, until the late 1930s a social reformer, and for the rest of her life a poet.

Stopes was born in Edinburgh, the daughter of feminist Charlotte Carmichael, one of the first women to attend university in Scotland, and geologist Henry Stopes. She won a science scholarship to University College London. In 1902 she was graduated B.Sc. with a double first in botany and geology. Specializing in paleobotany, she received her Ph.D. in 1904 from the University of Munich with a dissertation on fossil plants. The same year she became the first woman scientist hired by the University of Manchester. When University College, London, awarded her the D.Sc. in 1905, she became the youngest Briton of either gender to achieve that degree.

She married botanist and geneticist Reginald Ruggles Gates in 1911, but in 1916 obtained an annulment on the grounds of his impotence. Humphrey Verdon Roe became her second husband in 1918. His wealth paid for much of her campaign for birth control. Together they opened "The Mothers' Clinic" at 61 Marlborough Road, Holloway, North London, on March 17, 1921. This pioneering facility survived public challenges and moved to larger quarters at 108 Whit-field Street, London, in 1925. Even two bomb hits during World War II did not stop its operation. It continued at Whitfield Street until 1977, when the British National Health Service assumed responsibility for providing birth control.

Stopes wanted women to be able to enjoy sex without fear of conception. In many ways she was a voluptuary. After she grew tired of physical intimacy with Roe in the 1930s, she, with his consent, took on a series of younger lovers.

Her opponents included the medical and legal communities, religious leaders, and other birth control advocates, but her strongest opposition came from the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Pius XI's encyclical, Casti connubii (1930), codified the traditional Catholic views that artificial contraception is immoral and the purpose of marriage is to procreate. This doctrine, written partially in reaction to Stopes, was reaffirmed in Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae vitae (1968). Stopes further irked Catholics because, unlike most other early advocates of birth control, she did not oppose abortion.

She never succeeded against Catholicism but did manage to influence other churches. The Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion officially accepted the idea of birth control in 1958, just before her death.

Stopes was a prolific author. Among her books are Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (1918), Wise Parenthood: A Sequel to "Married Love"; A Book for Married People (1919), Radiant Motherhood: A Book for Those Who Are Creating the Future (1920), Contraception (Birth Control): Its Theory, History and Practice (1923), The Human Body (1926), Sex and the Young (1926), Enduring Passion: Further New Contributions to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (1928), Mother England: A Contemporary History (1929), Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control (1933), Birth Control To-Day (1934), Marriage in My Time (1935), Change of Life in Men and Women (1936), and Your Baby's First Year (1939).

Her interest in eugenics was extreme. She founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress in 1921 and after 1937 was a Life Fellow of the British Eugenics Society. She advocated the involuntary sterilization of anyone she deemed "unfit" for parenthood, including lunatics, idiots, addicts, subversives, criminals, and half-breeds. She disinherited her son, Harry Stopes Roe, because he married a woman with bad eyesight.

She was plagued throughout her public life by charges of anti-Semitism, political conservatism, and egomania. Many of these charges came from left-leaning rivals within the birth control movement, such as Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). Despite the ulterior motives of her accusers, a kernel of truth exists in what they said about her.

ERIC V.D. LUFT

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