Janet Copeland introduces one of the most important feminist figures in twentieth-century history.
All progress,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw, in a celebrated half-truth, ‘depends on the unreasonable man.’ He should also, of course, have added the unreasonable woman. Many considered that Marie Stopes fitted this category nicely. She never seemed a well-adjusted individual, and some found her haughty, high-handed and self-opinionated. An unconventional figure, who modelled herself on the American dancer Isadora Duncan and who resolutely refused to wear a bra, even into her seventies, she seemed always to be quarrelling with someone, women as well as men. Yet she undoubtedly furthered the progress of the world in her celebrated work of March 1918, Married Love.
Featured alongside the First Folio of Shakespeare, Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is the only work from the twentieth century to command a place in Melvyn Bragg’s selection of the ‘12 books that changed the world’. It was a book, she predicted, ‘which will probably electrify this country’. It did so, selling two thousand copies within the first two weeks of publication. It was banned as obscene in the United States, but in Britain it was reprinted six times in its first year. It is still in print today and has been translated into most of the world’s leading languages.
Marie Stopes was born in Edinburgh in 1880 to respectable middle-class parents, who brought her up in a typically prim and puritanical manner. But the rest of her life seemed highly unconventional. First, she managed to obtain an education which, to the male pundits of the day, seemed almost unnatural. She obtained a degree at University College, London, with first-class honours in botany, and then a Ph.D. from the university of Munich. A year later she gained a D.Sc., the youngest woman to be awarded the degree. In 1904-10 she taught at the University of Manchester, though she spent much of 1907 in Japan, having fallen in love with a married Japanese botanist, Kenjiro Fugii. Male traditionalists, deploring the ‘new woman’, believed that only marriage could rescue such creatures as she and give them some sort of normal life. And marry Marie Stopes duly did. Her husband was a Canadian geneticist, Reginald Ruggles Gates, whose surname she refused to adopt. It was indeed the making of her, though not as conventional people supposed, for in 1916 she obtained a divorce on the grounds that the marriage had not been consummated. She attested that at the age of 37, and having been married for half a dozen years, she was still a virgin. The offspring of the marriage, and of her sexual frustrations, was Married Love.
The times were ripe for Married Love. Women had not yet won the vote, but feminists had won the intellectual argument in favour of the emancipation of women. In addition, the Great War was leading to freer sexual relations. Nevertheless, Stopes had to tread particularly carefully if her book was to be published, for sex was not considered a topic fit to be written about openly. The reassuring title of her book was wisely chosen, for premarital sex, let alone homosexuality, would have been completely beyond the conventional pale. The book’s first paragraph was also reassuring, though broadly hinting at what was to follow. The author’s aim, she insisted, was to help produce ‘happy homes’ by helping ‘to increase the joys of marriage, and to show how much sorrow may be avoided’.
Married Love has been called the world’s first sex manual, and yet Stopes had to avoid openly calling a spade (or its equivalent) a spade. The word ‘orgasm’, for instance, was never used. Instead, she had recourse to a variety of metaphors. ‘Only by learning to hold a bow correctly,’ she wrote, ‘can one draw music from a violin: only by obedience to the laws of the lower plane can one step up to the plane above.’ Many have since mocked her coyness, and have suggested her style is more suitable for works of romantic Edwardian fiction. But she got her message across and avoided the censor; and at its best her prose style is remarkably effective. Many women will find it easy to recognise the meaning, and the truth, of the following: ‘Prudish or careless husbands, content with their own satisfaction, little know the pent-up aching, or even resentment, which may eat into a wife’s heart and ultimately affect her whole health’.
The book is full of practical advice covering the full range of marriage’s activities. Her starting point was that a married couple should treat each other as equals. The idea of equality between the sexes was indeed at the heart of her philosophy. ‘Marriage can never reveal its full stature until women possess as much intellectual freedom and freedom of opportunity within it as their partners.’ She even recommended separate bedrooms for the partners, should circumstances permit: ‘No soul can grow to full stature without spells of solitude’. A room of one’s own was desirable, if not essential, for ‘Far too often marriage puts an end to woman’s intellectual life’.
Both partners, she insisted, should recognise their sexual needs, and each should learn how to satisfy the other. Hers was not the explicit language of our modern era, but its meaning is clear enough, as in this quotation: ‘When the man tries to enter a woman whom he has not wooed to the point of stimulating her natural physical reaction of preparation, he is endeavouring to force his entry through a dry walled opening too small for it. He may thus cause the woman actual pain, apart from the mental revolt and loathing she is likely to feel for a man who so regardlessly uses her.’
Many found it completely shocking that women should admit to sexual desires and recognise the need for their own sexual satisfaction. Yet a frank admission of this reality was at the heart of Stopes’s mission. She mocked the view that ‘nice’ women were immune to sexual passion and that only the ‘depraved’ had physical yearnings that could be ‘as profound as a hunger for food’.
She was also adamant that children should be planned by means of birth control. (Marie Stopes did not of course invent birth control, the earliest evidence for which comes from Ancient Egypt, and she was building on the work of earlier feminist pioneers like Annie Besant; but she probably did more than anyone else in the twentieth century to inform people about it, campaign for it and popularise it.) She justified contraception very clearly. Every time a man had an ‘emission’, millions of sperms were naturally destroyed, so that to add one more to those millions ‘is surely no crime’. To those who said human beings have no right to interfere with the course of nature, she riposted that ‘the whole of civilization, everything that separates man from the animals,’ was in effect an interference with nature.
There was a real struggle to find a publisher. Books like this simply did not get published. The only books specifically about sex that were published were scientific treatises focusing mainly on sexual abnormalities, like Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex (from 1898). Leading publishers (all male) turned her down. It was mooted that a French translation might stand a better chance of being accepted. One publisher insisted that the ‘mystery of love’ should not be unveiled. Another judged that if girls knew the ‘facts of life’ they might be too scared to marry. But a donation from a benefactor, Humphrey Verdon Roe (whom Stopes soon married, although he was already engaged when they met), made publication financially secure, and eventually Married Love was published by a very small firm, Fairfield and Co, at a cost of two shillings and filling 120 pages.
The book created enormous controversy and resulted in several legal battles. The great and the good of the time took up their pro or anti positions. Stopes personally answered hundreds of letters, letters that revealed the often abysmal ignorance about even the basics of human sexuality. Some correspondents had believed that kissing caused pregnancy, and one man wrote to say how reassured he was that his wife’s gyrations during sex did not mean she was having ‘some sort of fit’. Many were grateful for what she had taught them. Yet others insisted that they found the book obscene and were disgusted at her recipe for ‘copulation without consequences’. A Catholic priest in 1919 wrote that he was praying Stopes’s writings ‘may not do as much harm to morals … as they are calculated to do’.
Many suffragettes believed that women should focus first of all on winning the political battle (and then all other things would be added). Marie Stopes was wiser: sex ignorance had blighted enough lives already and had to be dispelled, even before the vote was won or its legislative effects could be felt. Her book, carefully couched in a language that was just about acceptable for the time, contributed massively to ending ignorance about women’s sexuality. Reading the book these days, one may wonder what all the fuss was about. It says nothing about homosexuality or abortion, for instance. But that is just a measure of its success, for she contributed massively to the gradual growth of more open attitudes to sex.
Acceptance of her ideas came only slowly. But she did not stop campaigning, or writing. Later in 1918 she wrote a birth control manual, Wise Parenthood; and three years later, she and her new husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe, founded the Holloway Clinic, the first birth control clinic in Britain. It was the forerunner of the National Birth Control Association, renamed the Family Planning Association in 1939.
Always in the public eye, she alienated many fellow-workers in the movement, and as a result she more and more devoted herself to literature, producing plays, novels, poetry and film-scripts. Her second marriage also turned sour. In the mid-1930s she obtained her husband’s consent (in writing!) that she should be allowed to take other lovers. By the end of the decade, they were leading separate lives. Furthermore, her relationship with her only child, a son, whom she cut out of her will, was anything but harmonious.
Marie Stopes was certainly an unreasonable person. It is not easy to credit her claims to virginity in 1916, and hard to accept that a few years later, under a yew tree near her home, she received instructions from God to convert British bishops to the necessity for birth control. Today, we all deplore her support for eugenics. Nevertheless she undoubtedly contributed massively to what most people – though certainly not all – would recognise as progress: the sexual liberation of women. She died in 1958, two years after the US Supreme Court had removed a ban on contraception and in the same year in which the Church of England accepted the need for birth control. In 1999 she was voted ‘Woman of the Millennium’ by readers of the Guardian.
- Melvyn Bragg, 12 Books that Changed the World (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)
- Michael Bush, ‘The Rise of the Sex Manual’, History Today, Feb. 1999, pp. 36-42
- Lesley A. Hall, ‘Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004)
- June Rose, Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution (Faber and Faber, 1992)
- Marie Stopes, Married Love (OUP, 2004, with an introduction by Ross McKibbin).
Janet Copeland is a history enthusiast.
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