Marie Stopes Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A pioneer in sex education and birth control, Stopes emphasized the importance of happiness in human relationships.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)