Marie Stopes, promoter of sex education and birth control, will today (Thursday 29 July at 12 noon) be commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at her childhood residence, 28 Cintra Park, Upper Norwood, London SE19 2LH. Members of Marie Stopes's family will be attending the unveiling including her daughter-in-law, Dr Mary Stopes-Roe, and her grandsons Jonathan, who will unveil the plaque, and Christopher Stopes-Roe.
Marie Stopes was at the forefront of the movements for sex education and birth control in the 1920s and 1930s. The impact of her early books was vast, not just in promoting safe contraception - and the discussion of it - but in shaping the modern assumption of sex being for the pleasure of both partners. She was, in the words of one commentator, 'the eloquent Dr Ruth of interwar England', though her influence extended worldwide. In 1921 Marie Stopes opened Britain's first birth control clinic at 61 Marlborough Road, Upper Holloway, N19, and in 1930 she was among the founders of the National Birth Control Council, later the Family Planning Association.
Born in Edinburgh on 15 October 1880, Marie Stopes pursued her education with great passion. She took a first in botany at UCL in 1902; two years later she was awarded a PhD in botany at Munich - the first woman to achieve this - and became the first female member of the science faculty at the University of Manchester, where she lectured in palaeobotany (1904-7). Stopes first gained prominence as an expert on fossil plants, publishing The Constitution of Coal in 1918; the terms she devised for the components of coal are, with modifications, still used. She went on to study in Japan (1907), became a fellow of UCL (1910), and lectured widely.
Stopes's academic success was not mirrored in her personal life. After several unsatisfactory relationships, and the failure of her hasty marriage in 1911 to Canadian botanist Reginald Ruggles Gates, she became drawn to the cause of promoting sex education and contraception. Using frank language that pushed contemporary boundaries, Stopes wrote numerous books and pamphlets, prominent among them Married Love and Wise Parenthood (both 1918), and Radiant Motherhood (1920). Married Love was reprinted seven times within a year, and by 1938, had sold 820,000 copies worldwide.
It was through the birth control movement that she met her second husband and collaborator Humphrey Vernon Roe (1877/8-1949), brother and business partner of A. V. Roe, the aircraft designer. They were married in 1918 and set up Britain's first birth control clinic - in Holloway, north London - three years later. A national network of clinics followed, which existed to provide advice and support to young women seeking advice on birth control options; this did not include abortion, which remained illegal in any circumstances until 1967. Marie Stopes died in 1958 and her network of clinics went into receivership in 1975. The present-day organisation, Marie Stopes International, was started the following year.
Howard Spencer, an English Heritage Historian, commented:
"Marie Stopes was truly a remarkable woman, who did much to promote birth control and sex education, and to advance the liberation of women. Her messages were unpalatable to many contemporaries and she remains in some respects a controversial figure, but it cannot be doubted that she did much to reduce the misery of unplanned pregnancies, and to blast away Victorian taboos about sex. English Heritage is delighted to commemorate Marie Stopes's life's work by unveiling a blue plaque in honour of her significant achievements."
'Kenwyn', Cintra Park, Upper Norwood was Stopes's first London home to which she was brought by train from Edinburgh in December 1880. This handsome double-fronted house was given the number 8 in 1890, and survives, little altered, as the present 28 Cintra Park. It was here that Marie and her younger sister Winnie were home educated by their mother. Marie Stopes recalled being 'brought up in the rigours of the stern Scottish old-fashioned Presbyterianism … special books were kept for Sunday reading; no toys were allowed'.