Best known for her work as a pioneer in popularizing the use of birth control in the United Kingdom, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was also a prolific writer. While attracting the condemnation of the Catholic Church for her staunch advocacy of contraception and her establishment of Great Britain's first birth control clinic, Stopes' work as a social reformer would also pave the way for an increasing public acceptance of books on the subject of human sexuality.
Marie Stopes was a British scientist and writer who became an active proponent of sexual education and birth control in the early twentieth century. In books such as Married Love (1918), Stopes became one of the first people to publicly discuss romantic and sexual happiness in marriage. She also provided information on contraception through her clinics, lectures, and books, including Wise Parenthood (1918). While much of Stopes's information and advice was criticized by medical professionals and officials of the Roman Catholic church, her books enjoyed wide sales, demonstrating the public's need for the kind of well-explained practical advice that she offered.
Marie Charlotte Stopes was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 15, 1880. Her parents were both well-educated with successful careers: her father, Henry Stopes, was an architect, and her mother, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, was a Shakespeare expert who had been the first female graduate of a Scottish university. The family moved to London after Stopes's birth, and there she was educated at home by her mother until the age of 12. She was then sent to Edinburgh to begin classes at St. George's School. After a short period there, she moved to North London Collegiate, where she distinguished herself as a top student. Stopes attended University College, where she focused first on chemistry and later switched to an honors botany program. In 1902, she received her bachelor of science degree with honors in botany and geology.
Continuing to prepare herself for a scientific career, Stopes went to the Botanical Institute of Munich University in Germany. There, she conducted her doctoral research on the reproduction processes of cycads, a type of tropical plant. She was awarded a doctoral degree with highest honors in 1904. Returning to England, she earned a doctor of science degree from London University, becoming the youngest person in Britain to do so. The same year, she overcame another boundary by becoming the first woman to join the science faculty of Manchester University. Stopes had a very successful scientific career; she conducted well-respected research on the history of angiosperms and she also studied the composition of coal. Her work earned her a grant from the British Royal Society, an organization of leading scientists, which allowed her to travel to Japan to conduct research in 1907 and 1908. This award was another first for a woman.
Returning to her post at Manchester for a time, Stopes published the first of her scientific works, Ancient Plants, published in 1910. In 1913, she accepted a position at University College and for the next seven years she lectured in paleobotany and wrote other books in her fields of specialty. These included The Constitution of Coal, published in 1918, and The Four Visible Ingredients in Banded Bituminous Coal: Studies in the Composition of Coal, published in 1919.
In 1911, Stopes married Reginald Ruggles Gates, a Canadian botanist; she did not take his surname, however, and would retain her maiden name throughout her life. The marriage was not successful, primarily due to Stopes's discovery that her new husband was impotent. She filed for an annulment, which was granted in 1916. The experience apparently left a strong impression on Stopes, who increasingly turned her energies from her scientific research and teaching to writing on the topics of love, marriage, and sex. After completing her first book in this area, Married Love, she found that publishers were unwilling to handle a book that engaged in such unabashed discussions of sexual relationships. In order to get her work published, Stopes sought financial backing elsewhere. During this time, she met the wealthy pilot Humphrey Verdon Roe, who shared her interests in promoting birth control. Roe agreed to lend her the money to publish the book, which was finally printed in 1918. Stopes and Roe were married that year in a civil ceremony at a registry office in May and a religious ceremony on June 19. In July of 1919, Stopes delivered a stillborn son, a tragedy for which she held her doctors responsible. This event may have played a role in her strong distrust of doctors for the rest of her life. Roe and Stopes were successful in having a child in 1924, when their son Harry Stopes-Roe was born.
Married Love was a great success. Her marriage manual did not present many new ideas, but was unique in presenting instruction and advice with uncomplicated language that was accessible to a wide audience. Her main contribution was promoting the idea that people should expect and strive for happiness in their personal and sexual relationships, a fairly radical idea for the time. The book drew a substantial amount of letters from readers, most of whom desired information on birth control. Stopes willingly obliged her readers by compiling her ideas on the topic in the book Wise Parenthood in 1918. In the book, she suggested that a cervical cap be used for contraception; she felt that this was the best method to use and never supported any other methods despite the criticism she received from medical doctors on the subject. Wise Parenthood continued Stopes's practice of providing often unavailable information on reproduction by using detailed drawings of human anatomy to educate readers about the physical facts of sexuality.
Other books on sex, marriage, and birth control by Stopes followed throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, including A Letter to Working Mothers (1919), Radiant Motherhood (1920), and Enduring Passion (1928). In addition, in 1921 she and her husband founded the first birth control clinic in London, the Mother's Clinic. The early 1920s brought a number of attacks on Stopes's work. Doctors criticized her promotion of the cervical cap, arguing that it was one of the most harmful methods of birth control for women. A Roman Catholic doctor, Halliday Sutherland, wrote a treatise accusing Stopes of using poor women for birth control experiments; she vehemently denied the charges and countered by suing Sutherland for libel. The highly publicized trials that followed ultimately resulted in Sutherland being cleared of the charges, but brought Stopes an incredible amount of attention, resulting in her popularity as a public speaker. She also published a formal rebuttal to the Church's attacks on her work in the 1933 book, Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control.
Stopes's later years were marked by a growing sense of frustration and isolation. She and Roe were separated in 1938, at which time she moved into a home in Norbury Park in England. After she expressed disapproval over her son's marriage, she also lost touch with him for a long time. She reportedly became disillusioned with her humanitarian causes and retreated into literary pursuits, producing a number of poorly-received collections of love poetry such as Love Songs for Young Lovers (1939), We Burn (1950), and Joy and Verity (1952). The battles that she did take on were obscure and unsuccessful, notably her fight to obtain a state pension for the poet Lord Alfred Douglas. She held the belief that physical health could be maintained with a regimen of cold baths and drinking a daily glass of sea water; because of this and her distrust of doctors, she did not immediately seek medical attention when signs of illness appeared. She was finally diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, but refused standard treatment. Instead she underwent some holistic therapy in Switzerland before returning to Norbury Park and dying on October 2, 1958.
A flamboyant and often arrogant figure who considered herself the best authority on the topics of love, marriage, sex, and birth control, Stopes was criticized during her lifetime for advancing ideas that were in some cases outdated and not proper for all people. But much of the opposition she encountered also stemmed from the fact that she dared to address topics that were still considered improper for public discussion at that time. Fighting this mentality, which she felt led to ignorance and unhappiness in sexual matters, Stopes provided information that was eagerly sought by the public. Her success in changing attitudes about romantic relationships and parenthood was apparent in the popularity of her books and the enormous public response that they generated.
Further Reading on Marie Stopes
Adam, Corinna, "The Disappointed Prophetess," New Statesman, August 8, 1969, pp. 177-78.
Aylmer, Maude, The Authorized Life of Marie C. Stopes, Williams and Norgate, 1924.
Briant, Keith, Passionate Paradox: The Life of Marie Stopes, W.W. Norton, 1962.
Hall, Ruth, Passionate Crusader: The Life of Marie Stopes, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.