Stopes, Marie (1880–1958)

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Stopes, Marie (1880–1958)

Founder of the first birth-control clinic in the British Empire who helped popularize the idea that women could and should enjoy sexually satisfying relationships, of which one component must be women's ability to control their own reproductive functions. Born Marie Carmichael Stopes on October 15, 1880, in Edinburgh, Scotland; died of cancer on October 2, 1958, in Surrey, England; daughter of Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (a Shakespearean scholar and suffragist) and Henry Stopes (an architect and noted amateur archae-ologist); tutored by mother until age 12; attended St. George's High School, Edinburgh, and North London Collegiate School; University College of London University, B.Sc., 1902; University of Munich, Ph.D., 1903; London University, D.Sc., 1905; married Reginald Gates, on March 18, 1911 (divorced 1916); married Humphrey Verdon Roe, on May 16, 1918; children: (second marriage) Harry Verdon Stopes-Roe.

After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in botany, became a lecturer at Manchester University; traveled to Japan on a grant from the Royal Society to study botany and to pursue a romantic relationship with a fellow botanist (1907); appointed lecturer in paleobotany at University College, London (1911); became one of the most eminent paleobotanists in Britain and a noted expert on coal formation; after failure of first marriage, wrote Married Love, describing the importance of women's sexuality, the first of several bestselling publications discussing questions of human sexuality and contraception; opened the Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control, the first birth control clinic in the British Empire, and founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control to spread her ideas about birth control and eugenics (1921); brought a well-publicized defamation suit against the author of an anti-birth control book (1923); devoted the conclusion of her life to writing poetry and plays and assisting poets such as Alfred Douglas and Walter de la Mare.

Selected publications on birth control and sexuality:

Married Love (1918); Wise Parenthood (1918); The Truth About VD (1920); Radiant Motherhood (1920).

Shortly before World War I broke out, Marie Stopes began a desperate search for information at the British Museum Library. Although a noted paleobotanist, Stopes was researching neither plants nor fossils. Rather, she was hoping to shed some light on her own troubled marriage by delving into the library's materials on human sexuality. What Stopes discovered, to her shock, was that after three years of wedded life and at 33 years of age, she was still a virgin. Her marriage had never been consummated. Stopes realized that if she, a doctor of science, could have been so ignorant of the basic facts of human sexual relations, there must be millions of other women similarly suffering from the effects of Victorian morality. Stopes resolved to use her personal tragedy to help others find sexual fulfillment.

Born on October 15, 1880, in Edinburgh, Scotland, she was the elder of two daughters born to Charlotte Carmichael Stopes and Henry Stopes. Her mother was the first woman in Scotland to receive a university certificate (at a time when women were still barred from university degree programs), an ardent suffragist, a noted Shakespearean scholar, and a proponent of such "advanced" causes as the Rational Dress Movement. Despite these progressive tendencies, Charlotte Stopes was a religious woman and Marie and her sister Winifred Stopes were raised as members of the Free Church of Scotland. Stopes' father Henry was an engineer and architect who specialized in building breweries. However, he was also a passionate amateur archaeologist and, as he grew older, increasingly neglected his architectural practice in favor of fossil hunting.

Marie Stopes showed little academic promise in her early years. Educated at home by her mother until the age of 12, she was seriously behind her contemporaries when she enrolled at St. George's High School in Edinburgh, an educational institution for girls founded by some of her mother's suffragist friends. After two years, the Stopes family moved to London, and Marie entered North London Collegiate School, one of the best girls' schools in Britain. She continued to perform poorly, except in science.

At the urging of one of her science teachers, who saw signs of promise in the seemingly ungifted young woman, Stopes enrolled in University College at the University of London. She devoted herself to the study of botany. Perhaps hoping to prove herself academically, Stopes earned her degree with honors one year sooner than provided for in the normal curriculum, an almost unheard-of feat. In that same year, 1902, Stopes' beloved father died unexpectedly, leaving the family on the verge of poverty. Stopes realized that she would need to earn her own living, and perhaps contribute to the support of her mother and younger sister as well. However, her academic success had earned Stopes a fellowship for graduate studies. In 1903, she went to Munich where she studied plant fossils and received her doctoral degree. The following year, she accepted a position as a junior lecturer in botany at Manchester University in Britain, becoming the first woman appointed to the school's science faculty. Continuing her string of brilliant academic successes, Stopes earned her doctor of science degree in 1905, becoming the youngest person in Britain to attain that distinction. She authored numerous articles and books in her rather esoteric field of paleobotany and was soon recognized as the preeminent British authority on coal formation.

Although Stopes' professional life was enviably successful, her personal life seemed to careen from one catastrophe to another. She later claimed to have been a "late bloomer" in her own sexual development. Her father, furthermore, had instilled in her the quaint notion that no "nice girl" would even consider getting married before the age of 25—or, indeed, would kiss someone to whom she was not engaged. While studying in Munich, however, Stopes had met and fallen in love with a fellow botanist. Two hard facts stood in the way of their relationship: at a time when racially mixed marriages were virtually unheard of, her adored botanist, Kenjiro Fujii, was Japanese and, not less important, he was married. Never one to be deterred by reality, Stopes obtained a grant from the Royal Society in 1907 to finance her researches in paleobotany. Not coincidentally, the location of her field work would be Japan. Fujii, it is true, had divorced his wife, but when Stopes arrived with expectations of marrying him, he feigned illness and backed out of the affair. She later published their thinly disguised love letters in a book. Characteristically, Stopes made several important botanical discoveries while in Japan, despite her personal troubles.

Back in England, Stopes experienced several other romantic disappointments. In 1911, however, while attending a scientific conference in the United States, Stopes met a fellow botanist, Dr. Reginald Gates. Within a week of their first encounter, Gates proposed; they were married just a few months later. Unusual for her day, Stopes insisted on maintaining certain rights even after becoming a wife. The couple decided to settle in London, where Stopes had a good position teaching at University College, even though it would prove difficult for Gates to obtain suitable employment in England. Stopes also insisted on retaining her maiden name, sending out announcements to her friends to that effect and explaining that her professional title of "Doctor" should alleviate any awkwardness about how to address her. It was also about this time that Stopes joined the Women's Social and Political Union, the militant women's suffrage organization.

Jeanie, Jeanie, full of hopes Read a book by Marie Stopes. But to judge by her condition, She must have read the wrong edition.

—Schoolyard jingle

Despite Stopes' determination to make her marriage work on her own terms, much was amiss. In addition to his sexual problems (presumably he was impotent, although this has never been verified), Gates was often verbally abusive to Stopes. Stopes, not surprisingly, became increasingly estranged from her husband and turned to Aylmer Maude for comfort and advice. A noted translator and biographer of Tolstoy and 22 years her senior, Maude lived with Stopes and her husband as a paying boarder. Fortified by her researches on human sexuality at the British Library, and with Maude's encouragement, Stopes left her husband, obtaining a medical certification of her virginity and, in 1916, an annulment of her marriage.

Desperate for money after the expenses of her divorce case, Stopes wrote several plays, including a thinly disguised dramatization of her marriage to Gates and her relationship with Aylmer Maude, but failed to sell any of them. She was also working on a book that would explain in a simple, engaging manner her conclusions on the science and psychology of sex. Her motives in this endeavor were not purely pecuniary, however; as she later wrote, in "my own marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity." She broadened the scope of her intended work when in 1915 she attended a lecture by Margaret Sanger , the noted American birth-control activist. Stopes realized she must include information on contraception in her work on sexuality, and asked Sanger to share her information.

Even in the increasingly permissive atmosphere of World War I Britain, publications about sex were considered morally suspect. In the United States, Sanger had been indicted on obscenity charges for disseminating birth-control information through the mails. Stopes experienced great difficulty finding a publisher for her book, Married Love, although it included only a few pages on birth control and its descriptions of sexual intercourse were more mystical and romantic than explicitly descriptive. Stopes argued that men—and women—must acknowledge female sexuality to transform sex from a mere physical event into an act of mystical union. She wrote in Married Love:

Man, through prudery, through the custom of ignoring the woman's side of marriage and considering his own whim as marriage law, has largely lost the art of stirring a chaste partner to physical love. He therefore deprives her of a glamour, the loss of which he deplores, for he feels a lack not only of romance and beauty, but of something higher which is mystically given as the result of the complete union. And she, knowing that the shrine has been desecrated, is filled with righteous indignation, though generally as blind as he is to the true cause of what has occurred.

However, as an acquaintance who reviewed the manuscript wrote to Stopes, her work also contained enough hard facts to shock British society: "You certainly put in a lot of important points—menstruation, positions, ejaculation without penetration, birth control, insemination, etc.—which will terrify Mrs. Grundy."

After incessant rejections, Stopes finally secured a publisher who would market her book—if she provided him with the necessary funds to launch the publication. Fortuitously, she was introduced shortly thereafter to Humphrey Verdon Roe, an aviator and successful businessman who also happened to be intensely committed to the cause of birth control. Roe not only agreed to put up the money to publish Stopes' book, he also fell deeply in love with her. They married on May 16, 1918.

Roe's investment proved to be a wise one in financial as well as personal terms. Married Love was an instant success. When it appeared in 1918, Stopes wrote that her book "crashed into English society like a bombshell. Its explosively contagious main theme—that woman like man has the same physiological reaction, a reciprocal need for enjoyment and benefit from union in marriage distinct from the exercise of maternal functions—made Victorian husbands gasp. A week or two after that book was published in 1918 all London was talking of it." By the end of the year, the book had gone into six editions. Its influence continued to be recognized many years after; in 1935, a group of American academics ranked Married Love 16th on a list of the 25 most influential publications of the past 50 years. Stopes quickly followed up the success of her book with Wise Parenthood, a short guide to birth control, a subject to which she had devoted only a few pages in Married Love.

With the widespread success of Married Love, Stopes herself became a famous figure. Letters from readers poured in, beseeching her help in saving their marriages, improving their sex lives, or preventing unwanted pregnancies. Stopes provided personal answers to many correspondents, although she adamantly refused to give sexual advice to the unmarried or to provide any information on abortion.

She realized that her publications would be of use only to the better educated, relatively well-off segment of the British population. She would need to use different, more radical, tactics to bring her message to working-class women in desperate need of reliable birth-control information. Humphrey Roe shared his wife's concern for providing advice on contraception to poor British women. Even before his introduction to Stopes, Roe had tried unsuccessfully to endow a birth-control clinic. The subject was considered so controversial that the hospital he approached refused his contribution rather than alienate other, more conservative, donors.

On March 17, 1921, Stopes and Roe opened the Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control in London, the first birth-control clinic in the British Empire. (Margaret Sanger had already opened a clinic in the U.S.) The clinic offered free consultations and provided contraceptives at cost, to avoid any allegations of profiting from poor women's birth control needs. The aims of the clinic were four: first, to help the poor; second, to test the true attitudes of the working class, previously assumed to be unremittingly hostile to contraception; third, to

obtain scientific data about contraception; and finally, to collect data on women's sexuality, a much-understudied subject.

To publicize the work and goals of the clinic, Stopes and her husband founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress in 1921. In May of that year, they held a large public meeting at Queen's Hall in London. Many well-known figures of the birth-control movement, including Stopes, spoke to the more than 2,000 in attendance. Stopes also pioneered several innovative methods of bringing birth-control information and services to a wider public. In 1923, a film based on Stopes' ideas about birth control and sexuality, Maisie's Marriage, was shown throughout Britain. Although quite tame by modern standards, the film outraged the censors, who tried to prevent its screening on the grounds of obscenity. At Stopes' clinic, women nurses, rather than male doctors, provided birth-control information. Stopes believed that female patients would be more at ease with other women and would thus speak more freely of their contraceptive needs and problems. To provide services to women living outside major urban areas, Stopes established traveling caravans staffed by nurses that moved around the villages of rural Britain dispensing birth-control advice and services.

As the reference to "Racial Progress" in the name of Stopes' birth-control society indicates, however, her goal in promoting contraception was not merely to guarantee women's reproductive freedom and autonomy. Stopes was also a firm advocate of eugenics and believed that selective use of birth control could enhance the quality of the British population. The Society for Constructive Birth Control promoted itself as a "pro-baby organisation." One of their official publications stated:

We, therefore, as a Society, regret the relatively small families of those best fitted to care for children. In this connection our motto has been "Babies in the right place," and it is just as much the aim of Constructive Birth Control to secure conception to those married people who are healthy, childless, and desire children, as it is to furnish security from conception to those who are racially diseased, already overburdened with children, or in any specific way unfitted for parenthood.

Stopes undoubtedly saw herself and Roe as the type of people best suited to supply superior children for the improvement of the race. It was a great tragedy, therefore, both on the personal and the ideological level, when their first child was stillborn. In 1924, Stopes gave birth to a much-beloved son, Harry Verdon Stopes-Roe. He was to be their only child and, although Stopes tried to adopt several little boys to provide companionship for Harry, her single-minded devotion to her biological son prevented any of these adoption plans from succeeding on a long-term basis. Ironically, Stopes' obsession with racial improvement and eugenics eventually resulted in a lasting estrangement from her son. Stopes vociferously objected to her son's fiancée, arguing that the woman was racially unsuitable. (Harry's future wife was mildly nearsighted.)

In 1923, Stopes brought a much-publicized libel suit against Halliday G. Sutherland, a doctor and the author of a book against contraception. In that book, Sutherland implied that Stopes (who was not mentioned by name in the work) was using the poor women patients at her clinic for experimentation and also that the methods of birth control prescribed at the clinic were harmful. The outcome of the trial was ambiguous. The jury found that the remarks, although true, were also defamatory and unfair, and awarded Stopes £100 damages. This verdict was reversed on appeal. The publicity attendant on the trial, however, benefited both Stopes and the birth-control cause. Sales of her books picked up and attendance at her clinic, which had initially been rather sluggish, increased dramatically, more than doubling from the previous year.

As a well-known pioneer in an extremely controversial area, Stopes often felt that the established institutions of Britain were united in opposition to her and to her work. The Sutherland case heightened Stopes' paranoia. Sutherland was a Catholic and the Catholic Church, which was opposed to contraception, had assisted in funding his defense of the lawsuit. As a result, Stopes developed a lifelong virulent antipathy to the Church and to most Catholics, insisting that there was a Catholic conspiracy against her and her work.

Stopes' rabid anti-Catholicism was merely one indicator of her growing irascibility. As she grew older, she adamantly refused to work with the burgeoning birth-control movement in Britain and around the world. She refused to assist in the development of new, more effective, methods of birth control, insisting that the cervical cap continue to be prescribed to virtually all patients at her clinic. By 1950, Stopes, working independently, had established five clinics in the United Kingdom; by contrast, the Family Planning Association, which represented the mainstream birth-control movement in Britain, had hundreds of clinics throughout the country. Her views on sexual morality did not change over the years either. Stopes remained steadfastly opposed to homosexuality, abortion, and birth-control advice for unmarried women.

By the 1930s, although still a name to be reckoned with, Marie Stopes had effectively withdrawn from the forefront of the fight for contraception. In 1938, she separated from her husband who had been her greatest ally in the birth-control struggle. For the remainder of her life, Stopes wrote poetry (some of which was published) and cultivated the friendship of well-known poets such as Lord Alfred Douglas (a surprising choice since he was a Catholic and the former lover of Oscar Wilde) and Walter de la Mare. Although Stopes had long averred that she would live to be 120, she developed cancer and died at her country home in Surrey, England, on October 2, 1958, just short of her 78th birthday.


Box, Muriel, ed. The Trial of Marie Stopes. London: Femina, 1967.

Briant, Keith. Passionate Paradox. NY: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Eaton, Peter, and Marilyn Warnick. Marie Stopes: A Checklist of Her Writings. London: Croom Helm, 1977.

Hall, Ruth. Passionate Crusader. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Maude, Aylmer. The Authorized Life of Marie C. Stopes. London: Williams & Norgate, 1924.

Rose, June. Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.


Papers at the British Library, London.

Mary A. Procida , Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania