STOPES, Marie (1880-1958)
Plaque erected in 2010 by English Heritage at 28 Cintra Park, Upper Norwood, London, SE19 2LH, London Borough of Bromley
Writer, Family Planning Pioneer
Medicine, Philanthropy and Reform
MARIE STOPES 1880-1958 Promoter of sex education and birth control lived here 1880-1892
Marie Stopes was at the forefront of the campaigns 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, but in shaping the modern assumption of sex being for the pleasure of both partners.
In 1921 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.
She was, however, a dedicated believer in the ‘race science’ of eugenics, and her views became increasingly extreme and eccentric as she grew older.
Botany and coal
Born in Edinburgh on 15 October 1880, Marie Stopes moved with her family to south London before returning to Scotland for schooling. She received a first in botany at University College London (UCL) in 1902. Two years later she was awarded a PhD in botany at Munich, becoming the first woman to achieve this.
Stopes became the first female member of the science faculty at the University of Manchester, where she lectured in palaeobotany (1904–7). She studied for a spell in Japan (1907), became a fellow of UCL (1910), and lectured widely, gaining prominence as an expert on fossil plants. A monograph on coal appeared in 1918, and the terms she devised for the components of coal are – with modifications – still used.
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-born 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 were 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. Often listed among the most influential books of the 20th century, it discussed sex in frank terms including artificial birth control – then achieved by barrier methods, and opposed by most religious teaching.
The book brought Marie Stopes a public status somewhere between an academic expert in marital relations and an agony aunt: she answered letters for advice personally. It also brought her much criticism from opponents of birth control – the Roman Catholic Church became a lifelong adversary.
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 AV 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 provided support to women seeking advice on contraceptive options. This did not include abortion, to which Stopes was strongly opposed and which remained illegal until 1967. In many other respects she was socially conservative. She believed that the place for sexual relations was within marriage, and regarded homosexuality and masturbation as vices.
Eugenics and other views
Many of Stopes’s views now seem repugnant. She was a member of the Eugenics Society and also founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress in 1921. Underpinning this was her belief in encouraging those she deemed most suitable for parenthood to reproduce – which broadly meant those without disability and of higher social class – and discouraging those who did not.
At times Stopes went further and advocated the compulsory sterilisation of those she considered ‘unfit’ for parenthood: ‘the inferior, the depraved and feeble-minded, to whom reason means nothing and can mean nothing, who are thriftless, unmanageable and appallingly prolific’ (Radiant Motherhood, 1920).
Anti-Semitic and other xenophobic sentiments can be found in Stopes’s writings and, despite her first relationship being with a Japanese scholar, she was opposed to mixed marriages. She fell out with her only son, Harry, because the woman he chose to marry was short-sighted. Once, she wrote to a deaf father of four deaf children, telling him he had brought ‘more misery … into the world’.
Influence and legacy
Against all this must be set Stopes’s enormous influence on the rapid mainstream acceptance of family planning and of women’s right to control their sexual and reproductive lives. She wrote in Married Love, ‘It should be realised that a man does not woo and win a woman once for all when he marries her: he must woo her before every separate act of coitus.’ Today this reads like a statement of the obvious, but in 1918 it was revolutionary.
Marie Stopes died aged 77 in October 1958, in defiance of her own prediction that she would live to 120. That summer, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops acknowledged both the necessity of birth control, and that procreation was not the sole purpose of sex. In that she was vindicated, but the idea of using birth control for ‘improvement’ of the gene pool was utterly discredited.
She left the bulk of her fortune to the Royal Society of Literature and her clinics to the Eugenics Society; they went into receivership in 1975. The present-day organisation, MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly Marie Stopes International), was started the following year.
28 CINTRA PARK
‘Kenwyn’, Cintra Park, Upper Norwood, was Marie 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.
Here, 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’.
It was underneath a quince tree in the sloping back garden that she first posed the question ‘where do babies come from?’, to which she received no answer that satisfied her. Later she lived in Denning Road and in Well Walk in Hampstead, the latter address being her first, unhappy, marital home.
Lesley A. Hall, ‘Stopes [married name Roe], Marie Charlotte Carmichael’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required: accessed 14 Oct 2020)
Ruth Hall, Marie Stopes: A Biography (London, 1977)
June Rose, Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution (London,1992)