In the early 20th Century, Victorian England was shocked out of its prudery by a woman called Marie Stopes, who made it her vocation to inform the women of her day, that the enjoyment of sex was not just a male prerogative, but could be enjoyed by women too, without fear of pregnancy. What surprised everyone was that she was neither a doctor nor a sex therapist but a spinster, with Botany and Geology as subjects of specialization. Perhaps her friendship with Margaret Sanders an advocate for Birth Control induced her to make a lifelong commitment to the Birth Control Movement.
Marie’s first book “Married Love” was considered scandalous, and was turned down by a number of publishers. They found her theory, that marriage can be happy only if the couple has a mutually satisfying sex life, to be offensive. But a rich and influential man called Humphrey Verdon Roe got it published on 20th March 1918, even though the contents shocked the world. This man later became her second husband, and with his help she was able to establish the first Birth Control Clinic in 1921, in the Holloway district of London.
Marie’s second book “Wise Parenthood” was written after her marriage but before she became a parent. It was addressed to middle class women. Later, she brought out a condensed form of its contents, as a news letter, which was specially directed to poor women. It was titled “A letter to working class mothers – How to have healthy children and avoid weakening pregnancies.” But the poor ignored her letter and called her ‘a well intentioned meddler.’
Both Protestant and Catholic churches denounced her ‘indecent literature’ and were opposed to the sale of condoms. The Birth Control Clinic was open only to married women. It was manned by midwives and visiting doctors. Women were taught to use the cervical cap. Marie was against abortions.
In 1922, the cervical cap which she promoted was criticized vehemently by Halliday Gibson Sutherland. It led to bitter fights between them, which ended in a legal battle. Unluckily for Marie, Sutherland won the case.
Over the following years, Marie opened clinics in different parts of the British Isles. With fellow family planning pioneers, she established the National Birth Control Council in 1930. It was committed to improving the reproductive health of women and breaking down existing taboos.
Marie Stopes was born in Edinburgh on October 5th 1880. Both her parents were scholars who ensured that their intelligent daughter had a good education. She entered the University of London on a scholarship to study Botany and Geology. She secured a First Class in her B.Sc degree in 1902, followed by D.Sc and was the youngest person to do so. After extensive research in both subjects, Marie transferred to the University of Munich in 1904, for her PhD in Paleobotany. She then became a lecturer at the University of Manchester, and was the first female academic to be appointed on the Science staff of the University. But after a few years, she resigned her lectureship to concentrate on her Birth Control Clinic.
The quirks in her character however, were too blatant to ignore. Her first husband was a Canadian scientist called Reginald Ruggles Gates. She divorced him two years later in 1916, because her sex life was unfulfilling and was never consummated.
In 1918, she married the wealthy Humphrey Verdon Roe, and forced her husband to sign a pre-nuptial document to free her of sexual fidelity if he was unable to satisfy her.
Marie’s first child was stillborn in 1919. At the age of 43, her second son Harry Stopes Roe was born. She was a dominating mother who controlled every aspect of his life. When he grew up, he married against her will. Her main objection was that the girl wore spectacles, and there was a possibility of his children being damaged through imperfections. Mother and son were estranged till her death.
Though Marie disliked Hitler, she sent him a compilation of “Love Songs for Young Lovers,” Her son put this down to her megalomania and not because of any affection for him. But one presumes that her support for Eugenics was inspired by Hitler. She advocated sterilization of physically disabled and mentally retarded women calling them “inferior, depraved and feeble minded.” She believed that the human race would decline if such people were allowed to procreate. Like Hitler she was anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Russian.
But Hitler closed down her Birth Control clinics in Germany. So in 1940, she wrote a note to Churchill suggesting a slogan for the war against Hitler, “Fight the Battle of Britain in German Air.”
Marie was a harridan. Verdon Roe her husband had to put up with many humiliating restrictions. After World War II, she took to writing poetry and literature. She even wrote children’s stories under the name of Erica Fay.
Marie died of Breast Cancer on October 2nd, 1958. She bequeathed her mansion and entire estate to the Royal Society of Literature. To Harry her only son, she left 13 volumes of the Greater Oxford Dictionary.
But in spite of her eccentricities, she has been immortalized through the Marie Stopes International Organization which was started in 1976, and now covers 41 countries through a network of 600 centres.
Not many know that this champion of women’s rights had a small stone cottage on the Isle of Portland, where she used to hide during her stressful days of battle with Sutherland. In 1930, she converted it into the Portland Museum and presented it to the people of Portland. The museum in Church Ope Cove at Wakeham is a lovely place to visit. The exhibits there depict the history of the Isle of Portland.