Marie Stopes

Janet Copeland introduces one of the most important feminist figures in twentieth-century history.

Marie Stopes in her laboratory, 1904All 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.

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