Doctor. Tuberculosis pioneer. Best-selling author. Convert to Catholicism. Enemy of eugenics, and eugenicists.
I read Marie Stopes at 90: ‘Women are facing financial penalties for having sex—it’s Victorian’ by Bethan Cobley, Head of Advocacy at Marie Stopes International. It was published in The Daily Telegraph on 16th October 2015. You can read the article here. The article was written on the 90th anniversary of the opening of Stopes’ clinic in Whitfield Street, London and began:
“Ninety years ago Marie Stopes launched her family planning clinic in London’s Whitfield Street—the first in central London. By opening this single door, she sparked a revolution that’s continued to open doors for millions more women in the UK and around the world for almost a century.
“While reproductive choice is usually a proxy for talking about abortion, in 1925 when the clinic first opened, women had very few choices of any kind – particularly if they were poor or uneducated.
“It was Stopes’ disastrous marriage that first sparked her interest in sexuality and family planning. In 1914, after five years of marriage, she realised her sex life wasn’t quite right and that she was, in fact, still a virgin.
“This experience led her to write Married Love – the first sex manual in the UK, at a time when the public had access to very limited information about sex. Three years before women won the right to vote, she opened her clinic on Whitfield Street, bucking convention by demonstrating to women it was their choice whether and when they had children.
“It’s easy to see why Stopes was a controversial figure at the time.”
Actually, it isn’t easy to see why Stopes was a controversial figure. Things are easy to see if they are displayed. The author does not mention Stopes’ eugenic beliefs, which is one of the things that made her a controversial figure. I wrote a comment below the article:
Your article gives the impression that what was “shocking” about Stopes was her promotion of contraceptives, and that this is why she was controversial. This is, however, only part of the story.
A large part of the controversy was that her first clinic (opened in Holloway in 1921) was a eugenic project. The evidence for this is Stopes own words, spoken under oath in the High Court during the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial of 1923. She was explaining the role of the Society that she had set up to run the clinic:
“The object of the Society is, if possible, to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and the generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C.3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work.”
The “Society” was the “Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress.” The clinic dispensed Stopes own “PRO-RACE” brand of cervical cap.
There were economic reasons for her views as well, which she expressed in the pages of “John Bull” in 1924:
“From the point of view of the economics of the nation, it is racial madness to rifle the pockets of the thrifty and intelligent who are struggling to do their best for their own families of one and two and squander the money on low grade mental deficients, the spawn of drunkards, the puny families of women so feckless and deadened that they apathetically breed like rabbits.”
It should be acknowledged that the clinic did introduce measures that were beneficial to women, such as improving the health of mothers by spacing pregnancies and giving women a choice to conceive. Nevertheless its underlying aim was to address the “steady evil” and to curtail the birth rate of “the worst end of our community”.
Stopes also campaigned for the compulsory sterilisation of “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character”, the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced”, and “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”. Note that these are Stopes’ words, not mine.
Many of her opponents (for example, Dr. Halliday Sutherland) thought that eugenics was unethical. His opposition to eugenics arose while he was a tuberculosis pioneer fighting a disease that killed and disabled around 220,000 Britons each year at that time. Tuberculosis affected the urban poor about four times more than better-off sections of society. Sutherland was appalled when a prominent eugenist said that “the bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks that we want ab initio to discourage” and went on to explain that the cure would be achieved by breeding-out the unfit, rather than by improving living conditions and providing medical care. In 1917, Sutherland described eugenists as “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders”. When Stopes opened her eugenic birth-control clinic in 1921, he criticised her work and she sued him for libel.
By failing to mention the eugenic ideology that was central to Stopes’ work, you distort the historical record. You also dishonour those who opposed her in her lifetime because, with eugenics removed, they appear to be prudish Victorians and patriarchal reactionaries.
I believe that a mature society should properly understand its history. Your summary of Stopes is typical of the airbrushed hagiographies that have been used to promote her work over the last ninety years.
By all means promote the programs that you believe will help your clients. Do shout out the good work of Dr Marie Stopes in bringing contraceptives into everyday use, if that is what you believe. But do also think of the sort of country we would now be living in had Stopes’ agenda succeeded. Then thank those who opposed her because it is them, and not her, who prevented all of the ghastly aspects of her program from coming to fruition.