Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2008
Article abstract: A pioneer in sex education and birth control, Stopes emphasized the importance of happiness in human relationships.
Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes was born October 15, 1880, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her father, Henry Stopes, was an architect. Her mother, née Charlotte Carmichael, was the first woman in Scotland to take a university certificate and a respected Shakespearean scholar. The family moved to London soon after Marie’s birth. She was educated by her mother at home until she was twelve, when she entered St. George’s School in Edinburgh, where her unconventional early schooling made it difficult for her to compete with girls her own age. She soon transferred to North London Collegiate, where she blossomed academically.
She enrolled in the science faculty of University College, shifting from her first love, chemistry, to botany, where she was allowed to pursue an honors program. She passed her final B.Sc. examination in 1902, with first-class honors in botany and third-class honors in geology. Her father died in 1902, leaving the family in a precarious financial condition. Marie used her studies of the reproductive habits of cycads to pursue a doctorate in paleobotany at the Botanical Institute at Munich University in Germany. In 1904, she received her Ph.D. degree, magna cum laude.
Marie Stopes was small, with a slender, uncorseted figure, dark chestnut hair (later dyed red), and large, expressive, greenish-hazel eyes. She preferred flowing silk gowns in unusual colors and wore large hats, jangling jewelry, and voluminous furs. She was self-confident to the point of arrogance and quickly grew intolerant of anyone who opposed her. Her own sexual attractiveness was important to her, especially as she grew older.
In 1905, Stopes became the first woman on the science faculty at Manchester University. Also in 1905, she became the youngest doctor of science in Great Britain (London University). Among her interests were the study of coal and the origins of angiosperms. A grant from the Royal Society financed an eighteen-month expedition in 1907-1908 to Japan, the first such award to a woman.
Upon her return to England she resumed her position at Manchester, moving to London in 1911 and lecturing in paleobotany at University College, London, from 1913 to 1920. During those years, she published several scientific works, including Ancient Plants (1910), The Constitution of Coal (with R. V. Wheeler, 1918), and The Four Visible Ingredients in Banded Bituminous Coal: Studies in the Composition of Coal (1919).
It was for her work in sex education and birth control, rather than her work as a scientist, however, that Stopes became best known. This work grew at least partially out of difficulties in her personal relationships.
On March 18, 1911, Stopes married Canadian botanist Reginald Ruggles Gates in Montreal. They set up housekeeping in London. Stopes, whose knowledge of human sexuality at that time was astonishingly meager, did not at once realize that Gates was impotent. When she realized the nature of the problem, she read medical and legal books to prepare an annulment suit on the grounds of nonconsummation; the annulment was granted in 1916.
Her own unhappiness may have contributed to her first book on sex, Married Love (1918). The book, directed toward an educated, middle-class audience, emphasized the romantic aspects of marriage with what was for the time an unusually frank discussion of sexual relations. Publishers were reluctant to handle such a controversial book, and Stopes needed financial backing which she could not obtain until she met Humphrey Verdon Roe, a wealthy aviator who was already an advocate of birth control. He lent her the money she needed to publish Married Love (which she repaid). Stopes and Roe married in a registry office on May 16, 1918, with a church ceremony at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, on June 19, 1918. She retained use of her maiden name in both of her marriages.
Married Love was an immediate success and generated, as did most of her books on sex, a tremendous mail response mostly requesting contraceptive information. She responded with Wise Parenthood (1918), offering contraception information and detailed drawings of the human reproductive systems. Stopes recommended a cervical cap with a quinine pessary as the preferred method of birth control (and never recognized its limitations). In 1919, Stopes published her first book for working-class women, A Letter to Working Mothers. In March, 1921, she and Roe opened the Mother’s Clinic in London, the first birth control clinic in Great Britain. Later in 1921, Stopes became president of the newly organized Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. Among Stopes’s other books were Radiant Motherhood (1920) and Enduring Passion (1928).
Opposition to Stopes as the best-known advocate of contraception came from many sources, including religious and medical groups. At a 1921 medical and legal meeting in London, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology attacked the rubber cap advocated by Stopes as the method of birth control most harmful to women. Soon afterward, Halliday Sutherland, a Roman Catholic physician, wrote Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians (1922), alleging that Stopes exploited the ignorance of the poor by using them in birth control experiments. Stopes sued Sutherland for libel. In the trial, both sides presented expert medical testimony. The presiding judge ruled in favor of Sutherland. Stopes won the first appeal but lost when Sutherland appealed the case to the House of Lords. She responded to the Church’s opposition by writing Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control (1933). As a result of the trial publicity, Stopes’s public speaking career blossomed.
In July, 1919, at the age of thirty-nine, Stopes gave birth to her first child, a stillborn son. Stopes blamed the doctor, and only the threat of legal action stopped her accusations. She never again trusted doctors. In March, 1924, she was delivered by cesarean section of a son, Harry Stopes-Roe, on whom she doted.
After 1938, Stopes grew disenchanted with humanity. When she was in her late fifties, she began writing love poems. She concentrated on literary pursuits during the last years of her life despite unfavorable critical reviews and poor sales. Among her books at this time were Love Songs for Young Lovers (1939), We Burn (1950), and Joy and Verity (1952).
Stopes separated from Roe about 1938 and lived alone at Norbury Park, near Dorking. She became estranged from her son, Harry, when he married against her wishes, a break which was mended slightly but never healed. In her later years, Stopes wrote poetry, maintained a voluminous correspondence, supported her mothers’ clinic, and fought lost causes, such as her unsuccessful battle to win a state pension for poet Lord Alfred Douglas.
Convinced that she would live to be 120 and suspicious of physicians, Stopes ignored the early signs of illness. When she sought medical attention, her doctors found advanced breast cancer. She researched the subject carefully and briefly took holistic treatment in Switzerland. She died at Norbury Park on October 2, 1958. She left the bulk of her estate to the Royal Society of Literature, with only a small portion of the estate going to her family.
Marie Stopes moved into realms traditionally closed to women—higher education, science, and sexual research. She wrote the first popular marriage manual and opened the first birth control clinic in Great Britain. Although her ideas were rarely original, she put the ideas of others into understandable, if flowery, language in a readily available form. Stopes put forth the radical idea that people, especially women, have the right to happiness (sexual and otherwise) in marriage. Although her books were innocuous by later standards, they shocked many of her contemporaries, and she both reveled in and suffered from the response of her critics. She was so controversial that many newspapers refused any mention of her (The Times even refusing to print the announcement of her son’s birth).
Stopes saw herself as a pioneer in sex education and birth control and the only true expert in the field. She refused to acknowledge others in the field and never recognized that no one method of birth control was right for everyone. She quarreled with virtually everyone working in either sex research or birth control.
She had other quarrels as well, including a serious one with the Roman Catholic church, which opposed her work in contraception. The Church supported and helped finance Sutherland in his libel litigation with Stopes. It banned her books and her film, Maisie’s Marriage (1923). British newspapers refused advertisements for her books lest the police in Roman Catholic Eire confiscate those issues. Her early battles with the Church eventually led her to a sense of persecution verging on paranoia, seeing almost any misfortune as part of a Roman plot against her.
Stopes also faced medical opposition. Many doctors opposed Stopes’s use of nurse-midwives instead of doctors to dispense contraceptives in her clinics. Others saw birth control as a threat to practices heavily dependent on deliveries and the gynecological problems resulting from frequent pregnancies. Still others resented Stopes’s encroachment into what they regarded as their territory (neither of her doctorates was a medical one).
Her dislike and suspicion of physicians stemmed only in part from this medical opposition. Later, as new knowledge about sex emerged, Stopes refused to admit that her ideas were outdated and viewed all other research in sex and birth control as a personal attack against her. She saw herself as the ultimate expert on virtually everything and considered her own regimen of a daily glass of sea water and cold baths sufficient to maintain good health.
Stopes’s flamboyance, her outdated factual data, and her outspoken advocacy of such later-discredited causes as eugenics have drawn attention from her accomplishments. She had a genuine and deserved reputation as a paleobotanist. She dared to advocate marital happiness and talk about sex when almost no one else would do so. The wide sales of her books testified to the genuine needs they addressed for people of all classes throughout the world. She often said that she wished to give twenty years of her life to science, twenty years in service to humanity, and twenty years to literature. She came close to doing just that.
Adam, Corinna. “The Disappointed Prophetess.” New Statesman 78 (August 8, 1969): 177-178. Reassessment of Stopes which concludes that she was a distinguished scientist and a great humanitarian whose contentious personality diminished her influence. Contends that her major contribution was hastening people’s knowledge of how to achieve happiness in sexual relationships.
Blythe, Ronald. “Dinner with Dr. Stopes.” New Statesman 57 (January 31, 1959): 140-142. Brief account of Stopes’s lecture before a local literary society shortly before her death. Vivid depiction of her personal appearance and personality in the latter years of her life, showing her literary preoccupation and her disenchantment with humanity.
Briant, Keith. Passionate Paradox: The Life of Marie Stopes. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1962. Written by a close friend soon after Stopes’s death with some use of her papers. Generally favorable and reflects closely Stopes’s own perceptions of herself. Less laudatory than Aylmer Maude’s book, but not as complete as Ruth Hall’s.
Hall, Ruth. Passionate Crusader: The Life of Marie Stopes. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Thorough biography of Stopes. Sometimes critical but generally balanced account which uses the Stopes and Stopes-Roe papers extensively. Heavy emphasis on personal life and its effect on her professional life.
Maude, Aylmer. The Authorized Life of Marie C. Stopes. London: Williams and Norgate, 1924. Earliest biography of Stopes, written by a close friend (with considerable help from Stopes) in response to criticism of her early works on sex. Tells nothing Stopes did not want known, including her date of birth.
Sawin, Lewis. “Alfred Sutro, Marie Stopes, and Her Vectia.” Theatre Research International 10 (1985): 59-71. Concerns Vectia: A Banned Play and a Preface on the Censorship (1926), Stopes’s only written account of her disastrous first marriage. Reveals both Stopes’s version of the events and her attitude.
Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon, with Ian Scott. Marie Stopes and Birth Control. Hove, East Essex: Wayland Publishers, 1974. Written for young adults by Marie Stopes’s son. Balanced account of her role in sex education and birth control. Extensive illustrations, including many not found in other biographies.