This year marks the centenary of Marie Stopes ground-breaking sex manual Married Love. Published at a time when the topic was considered taboo, the book became a run-away best seller and has been deeply adored by many married couples ever since. Alongside her work on birth control and family planning, Marie Stopes was also a passionate scientist in the field of botany. She led expeditions across Japan to investigate the evolutionary origin of flowers and became the first woman to join the faculty of science at The University of Manchester.
Marie Carmichael was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 1880. Her father was a wealthy architect who had a passion for archaeology and accumulated the largest private collection prehistoric stone instruments in the world. Her mother Charlotte Carmichael, scholar and women’s rights activist, was a passionate advocacy of the suffrage movement, and in 1878 became the first woman in Scotland to take a university certificate in the Arts at the University of Edinburgh. Although degrees were not awarded to women, she achieved the highest qualification then available to a female student.
Influenced by the interests and accomplishments of her parents since early childhood, at the age of 18 she undertook a degree in both botany and geology at University College, London, gaining a first-class Honours in 1902. She also won the University’s Gilchrist Scholarship, enabling her to travel abroad to take postgraduate work. The following year she continued her research at the Botanical Institute of Munich University, completed her thesis on the reproduction processes of tropical plants, and became the first woman in Munich to take a Ph.D. in Botany (Hall 2004). Returning to England, she joined the faculty of science at Manchester University as a junior lecturer in botany. Her work was well respected and earned her a grant from the British Royal Society, which she used to travel to Japan to conduct research in 1907 and 1908. Here she kept a daily record of her observations, published in her Journal from Japan. Returning back to Manchester as a full lecturer, she published her first scientific work Ancient Plants in 1910. Later accepting a position at University College, she lectured in paleobotany and wrote many books on the subject, including The Constitution of Coal.
In 1911, Stopes married Canadian botanist, Reginald Ruggles Gates, in Montreal. The marriage was not successful due to her discovery that her husband was impotent, and so she acclaimed an annulment in 1916. The experience left a strong impression, and so she turned her attention away from botanical research to writing on topics of sex, marriage and childbirth. During this time, she met Margaret Sanger, an American sex educator and birth control advocate, who had fled to England to avoid charges in the USA for distributing contraceptive information. Sanger had worked as a nurse in the slums of New York and was horrified by the way poor families were treated. She helped women escape poverty, illness and deaths caused by medical conditions. From Sanger, Stopes received up-to-date information on eugenics, especially the use of the rubber pessary for female contraception.
In 1918, Stopes married Humphry Vernon Roe, a wealthy aircraft pilot and manufacturer. Roe supported her interest in sex education and lent her money to publish her first book Married Love. The book became an instant success. For the first time a practical sex manual was available for the general public. The book spoke openly about sex when it was still considered improper for public discussion. For this reason, the book was condemned by the Church and banned from the U.S.
She received many letters from people interested in birth control, so in response to her readers she compiled her ideas in her book Wise Parenthood (1918). The book had not been well received from leaders of the Church of England who were against the advocacy of birth control. Following throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, she published other works on marriage and birth control. These include Truth About Venereal Disease (1920), Radiant Parenthood (1920), and Enduring Passion (1928). Her publications during the 1920s brought on a number of attacks. In particular, medical practitioners criticized her promotion of the cervical cap, arguing that it was one of the most harmful methods of birth control for women. She believed this was one of the best methods to use and never supported any others despite the criticism she received (Encyclopaedia of World Biography 2004).
In 1921, Stopes and her husband Humphry Roe opened a birth control clinic in the once deprived area of Upper Holloway in London. This was staffed by female nurses with a specialist doctor available for cases requiring medical examination and advice. The service was free for married women, provided access to birth control for the poor, and collected scientific data about contraception and the sex lives of women (Leathard 1980).
In 1922, Halliday Sutherland, a Roman Catholic doctor, published a book entitled Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine against the Neo-Malthusians. In this he made several attacks on Stopes and her birth control clinic. Among the words she most objected were: “In the midst of a London slum a woman who is a Doctor of German Philosophy (Munich) has opened a birth control clinic where working women are instructed in a method of contraception described by Professor McIlroy as ‘the most harmful method of which I have had experience’. It is truly amazing that this monstrous campaign of birth control should be tolerated by the Home Secretary.” Stopes denied charges and sued Sutherland for libel. The trial began in early 1923, on the proposition that her teachings amounted to a criminal offence. Although it was stated by the council that her writings ‘were some of the highest works any man or woman could possibly put forward on this subject,’ the Roman Catholic Church, of which Sutherland was an ardent supporter, objected to anything that might infringe on what they believed to be the views of their religion. It was not Stopes’ belief that birth control was intended to limit the population, in fact
“What she believed in and was seeking to teach was that the only possible chance of happiness for married people was to realise that marriage was intended to be a joy to both and not a curse to either. Her teaching in this book [Married Love] was not that people should not have children, but that they should have healthy children at a time when they could properly be cared for. Further that women’s lives should be made happy by the association of their children and husbands, and their lives should be made happy by the feeling that their husbands had not got to treat their wives in a way that was going to cause misery and unhappiness to them.”
Evidence was put forward by Sir James Barr, celebrated physician at Liverpool Royal Infirmary. He regarded Stopes’ methods as harmless, effective and very safe. “Information,” he said, “which almost all wealthy people have today, ought to be given to the poor as well. There is no reason why they should be kept in ignorance when other people have the right.” Despite this, Stopes had received hostility from the judge, who was in favour of Sutherland. Derogatory remarks were made from Sutherland’s council and witnesses, who were themselves opposed to the methods of contraception. The jury’s verdict was confusing and inconclusive, and Sutherland’s remarks were judged to be true but defamatory. Stopes appealed, and the decision was in her favour. Sutherland, with strong Catholic backing, appealed to the House of Lords, and the verdict was then reversed.
Marie Stopes was truly an extraordinary woman. Despite the hardships she had faced from her opponents, she continued to pursue the causes she believed in, and remains to this day as a much loved and respected figure. In honour of her name, the charity Marie Stopes International had been established in the 1970s, and is now the leading provider of sexual and reproductive health care in the UK, with numerous clinics around the world, helping women and girls to receive contraception and safe abortion services.
Blog written by Isaac, Archives+ Volunteer
Manchester Central Library holds a fantastic collection of the works of Marie Stopes, from her early studies on botany Ancient Plants (1910), to her work on family planning Wise Parenthood (1919), and some writings she composed during her later years, Our Ostriches (1930), Lord Alfred Douglas his poetry and his personality (1949).
Anonymous (1923). ATTACK ON DR. MARIE STOPES. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959), 13.
Marie Stopes. (2004). Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Gale. 14, 476-478.
Debenham, C. (2010). Grassroots feminism: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-1938. PhD Thesis, University of Manchester. Available at Manchester Libraries.
Debenham, C. (2013). Birth Control and the Rights of Women: post-suffrage feminism in the early twentieth century. London: I.B. Tauris.
Hall, R. (1977). Marie Stopes: A biography. London: Andre Deutsch. Available at Manchester Libraries.
Hall, L. (2004). Stopes [married name Roe], Marie Charlotte Carmichael (1880–1958), sexologist and advocate of birth control. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available at Manchester libraries.
Leathard, A. (1980). The Fight for Family Planning. London: MacMillan Press. Available at Manchester Libraries.
Maude, A. (1933). Marie Stopes: Her Work and Play. 2nd ed. London: Peter Davis. Available at Manchester Libraries.
Rose, J. (1993). Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. London: Faber and Faber.
Stopes, M. C. (1933). Married Love. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Available at Manchester Libraries.
Stopes, M. C. (1910). A Journal from Japan. Glasgow: Blackie. Available at Manchester Libraries.
Stopes, M. C. (1910). Ancient Plants. London: Blackie & Son. Available at Manchester Libraries.