Marie Stopes was one of the most significant figures in the modern birth control movement. She founded 37 international family planning clinics and brought sexual knowledge and fulfillment to countless women around the world. She was also a complex and complicated figure in the women’s rights and eugenics movement.
We invite you to listen to our podcast or read the transcript below.

Marie Stopes Scientist and Birth control

Marie Stopes in her laboratory, 1904. From Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Other Episodes of Interest:

Transcript for Marie Stopes Podcast:

Marie Stopes: Pioneer of Married Sexual Pleasure, Birth Control and Eugenics

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced and recorded by Averill Earls PhD  and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate

*Marie Stopes is pronounced as Mary Stopes (the Brits pronounce it weird)

Averill: “EVERY heart desires a mate.” So opens Married Love, the 1918 best-selling manual for good matchmaking, sexual fulfillment, and family planning. Marie [mary] Stopes, author of Married Love, was the embodiment of the convergence of Victorian sex research, eugenic science, and the British women’s rights movement. A headstrong, brilliant scientist, Stopes was one of the most significant figures in the modern birth control movement. From her work on flowering plant fossils in paleobotany to the hundreds of Marie Stopes International family planning clinics in 37 countries today, her life, work, and legacy changed the world.

I’m Averill Earls
And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
And we’re YOUR historians for this episode of DIG: A History Podcast

Elizabeth: Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes was born in Edinburgh in 1880 to a wealthy architect with a penchant for paleobotany and a feminist activist. Those who knew her, even in her early years, commented on her headstrong nature. Though it wasn’t allowed, she earned her Bachelors of Science in just two years, graduating at the age of 21. When she went to study at the Botanical Institute in Munich on a research scholarship, she was refused the opportunity to pursue a doctorate because she didn’t speak German and, of course, she was a woman. Defiantly she learned German, worked furiously and without flagging, and was the first woman to earn a PhD at the University of Munich in 1904 – as Magna Cum Laude. Even more remarkably she earned a Doctorate of Science just one year later from London University – the highest degree honor a scientist can achieve in Great Britain. She was the youngest person to do so in the country.

Averill: In 1904 she joined Manchester University’s science faculty as a junior member, and spent 1904 to 1910 teaching. Her research focused on plant fossils, and the biggest scientific question of the day was on the origins of angiosperms, or flowering plants. Charles Darwin had called them an “abominable mystery.” The earliest traces of flowering plants were leaf impressions in Japan. The chance to study there was most fortunate indeed, because Japan was home to more than just her academic interests.

Elizabeth: Kenjiro Fujii was a Japanese botanist who’d studied at Munich with Stopes – one of the 500 male students, and the only one to catch her eye, and ultimately capture her heart. The only hang up was the wife who waited for him back in Tokyo.

Averill: Since she’d left Munich, the two had corresponded regularly, fostering their affections across two continents. And then, in 1906, Fujii wrote to tell her that he was divorced. Angiosperms got her the funding from the Royal Society of London to spend most of 1907 and part of 1908 in Japan studying fossils and the hottest question in paleobotany.

Elizabeth: The Japanese government aided her exploratory expedition in Japan, giving her an entourage of over 30 men. They helped her climb down into coal mines, collect samples, and haul it all over the countryside. As The Liverpool Echo reported, “She traversed the country from end to end, and made many notable discoveries of fossils…Miss Stopes in these explorations went into parts of Japan where no white person has ever been.” The angiospermacious (which isn’t a real word, but sounds cool, right?) discoveries she made were indeed the earliest flowering plant species ever discovered for many years.

Averill: And while Japan was hospitable to her in every possible way, the man Marie Stopes had arranged to be with was not. Fujii’s affection apparently cooled while she was going back and forth from Manchester to Hokkaido. He even pretended to have leprosy. When she finally returned to Manchester for good, brokenhearted and disappointed, the only consolation she sought was denied her. She’d met Robert Scott at a dance in 1904. Later she told a friend that she thought him “the most “divine waltzer and reverser,” though her obsession with him was not romantic. She wanted desperately to expedition with him to Antarctica to study seed ferns at the southernmost point. It happened that he was planning another expedition to Antarctica just as she was returning from Japan. But there was no place for a woman on that adventure, and the disappointment deepened. She turned to the only sensible option for a woman in her position: she married.

Elizabeth: Her groom was a Canadian botanist and geneticist, Reginald Gates, and they were wed in Montreal in 1911. The marriage was a disaster. They quarreled about the house, about rent, and possibly about the sex they were not having. Stopes came to the marriage with apparently no sexual knowledge; she did not realize that her husband was impotent. She was frustrated beyond measure. She consulted legal experts to try and find some grounds to divorce her husband, and found none. She kept digging, and found her answer in the anatomy and biology sections of the University library: her husband was unable to perform the sexual functions of married life. She sued for annulment, asserting that the marriage was never consummated. At the age of 36, after being married for five years, she claimed that she was still a virgin. And she was granted the annulment.

Averill: Not long after her frustrating and unfulfilling marriage to Gates ended, she met someone new and far more impactful.

Margaret Sanger fled to England in 1915 to avoid prosecution in the United States. She’d been distributing information about birth control in her newsletter – a ‘heinous crime’ under the Comstock Laws that Sarah and Elizabeth talked about in our birth control episodes last spring. While in London, she met Marie Stopes, who was by then doing an intensive study of female sexuality at the British Museum. They discussed Stopes’s plans for a sex manual – one that wouldn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the British censorship office, but which would provide ample instruction in establishing satisfying sex lives – for married, middle-class, heterosexual men and women. Sanger instructed Marie Stopes on the rubber pessary, or the “Dutch cap,” for female contraception… basically an early diaphragm.

Elizabeth: The two were affectionate friends at first, but also rivals, and eventually grew apart. Sanger lamented in her letters to friends that Stopes never properly credited her as having the first birth control clinic; Stopes always envied Sanger’s international acclaim and publicity. In 1927, Sanger wrote about an encounter with Stopes at a Genetics Conference when Stopes showed up uninvited –

“Marie Stopes who had not been invited got cards somehow & upon the arm of her husband swept into the drawing room to attend the meeting. Lord Dawson then changed the programme & decided there should be no discussion only questions. Marie arose with book in hand & announced that Mary Ware Dennett had written a book on the Laws in U.S.A. & she hoped they would all buy it & understand the situation in U.S.A.! Juliet darling! the book that book. Isn’t she a fiend? Don’t buy it or read it or look at it. Its devilish & cruel. I wrote at once to Havelock (who has the book) & asked his opinion of it. He was good enough to read it at once & wrote me that it was uninteresting, too full of details & obviously trying to hurt me & belittle the work I have done. He said it’s the old trick of Politicians digging up peoples past ideas & using them as a weapon. He urged me not to discuss it & it would never live unless my friends gave it life by buying & reading it.”

Averill: The two differed greatly on a number a key issues. For one, Sanger believed ardently in birth control access for ALL, no matter what their socio economic status or ethnicity or marital status.
Stopes’s work on birth control access was largely aimed at the well-educated, white, middle class heterosexuals.

Marie Stopes Birth Control

Married Love Title Page Public Domain University of Pennsylvania Digital Library

Elizabeth: Stopes’s sex manual, Married Love, was very much a symbol of those differences. It was intended for an educated middle class woman, and its cost and lexile level limited its accessibility to anyone outside of those parameters. Still, it was the first of its kind in Britain, and was ready for publication in 1918.

Averill: Unsurprisingly, no publisher would touch it. It was too controversial a topic and thus risky an investment. But Stopes was fortunate in her second and final marital match.

Elizabeth: Marie Stopes married Humphrey Verdon Roe – they really don’t name ‘em like they used to – in 1918. Roe was a pretty cool guy, as early-20th century husbands go. He shared and supported Stopes’s interest in sex education. He’d witnessed the effects of frequent childbearing on his female workforce in the manufacturing industries. He’d even tried to fund a birth control clinic at St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, but the hospital declined the offer. Roe was a famous – and very wealthy – aircraft pioneer, and when they married he was on war service in the Royal Air Force during World War I. As part of their pre-nuptial agreement, he gave Stopes a gift of 20 thousand pounds, plus another 10 thousand to finance her activities in birth control activism. She used that money to publish her book – which was an instant best-seller – and ultimately paid her husband back.

Averill: While British censorship laws were a bit more lax than America’s Comstock Laws, it was still dangerous for a sex manual like Married Love to discuss sex explicitly. So the resulting book – which is the marriage of Stopes’s research on female sexuality with her hobbyist interest in writing poetry – is a scientific instruction manual enveloped by prose packed with metaphor and allusion.

Elizabeth: Stopes’s sex manual guides the young – and old – married couple to sexual fulfillment. But she also counsels that married couples should start on a base of equality. Thus when it comes to sex, both should be sharing equally in the sexual pleasure, just as they should be viewed equally in their contributions to the marriage. She recommends separate bedrooms when possible, that a woman’s intellectual growth not be stifled by marriage. She also assumes that good, middle class boys and girls enter into marriage with no sexual knowledge. So Stopes educates – in as straight-forward a language as possible.


“What actually happens in an act of union should be known. After the preliminaries of love-play, the stimulated penis, erect, enlarged and stiffened, is pressed into the woman’s vagina. Ordinarily when a woman is not stimulated, the walls of this canal, as well as the exterior lips of soft tissue surrounding its exit, are dry and rather crinkled, and the vaginal opening is smaller than the man’s extended organ. But when the woman is what is physiologically called tumescent (that is, when she is ready for union and has been profoundly stirred), these parts are all flushed by the internal blood supply and to some extent are turgid like those of the man, while there is a plentiful secretion of mucus, which lubricates the channel of the vagina.

In a really ardent woman the vagina may even spontaneously open and close as though panting with longing. (So powerful is the influence of thought on our bodily structure, that in some people all these physical results may be brought about by the thought of the loved one, by the enjoyment of tender words and kisses, and the beautiful subtleties of wooing.)”:

Averill: Stopes is blunt in her assessment of men who approach women without the appropriate wooing – that a dry vagina, when a woman has not been delivered to tumescence, is not a nice experience for anyone, and can hurt a woman. Surprisingly, the buck doesn’t stop there. Stopes discusses the location and function of the clitoris, the female orgasm, and the importance of sex beyond procreation.

Elizabeth: A number of well-meaning people demand from men absolute “continence” save for procreation only. They overlook the innumerable physiological reactions concerned in the act, as well as the subtle spiritual alchemy of it, and propound the view that “the opposition to continence, save for procreation only, has but one argument to put forward, and that is appetite, selfishness.” (Mary Teats, “The Way of God in Marriage.”)

Averill: And even better, Stopes even gives instruction on how to “ready” a woman for pleasurable sex. In correspondences with an older woman (and fellow birth control activist) later in life, the older woman said she knew that she’d experienced an orgasm before, but had never had the language for it. And language aplenty did Marie give.

Elizabeth: She counseled men and women on the magic world of breasts and nipples, and their connection to a woman’s sexual arousal. In her very wordy fashion, she notes that some husbands are unaware that “the kissing and the tender fondling with his lips of a woman’s breasts is one of the first and surest ways to make her ready for complete and satisfactory union.”

Averill: Even more to the point, though again — not REALLY to the point, because she had to dance around the offending language of sex — discussed the mystery of the clitoris.

“Though in some instances the woman may have one or more crises (when she says crisis here, she means orgasm) before the man achieves his, it is perhaps hardly an exaggeration to say that 70 or 80 per cent of our married women (in the middle and intellectual classes) are deprived of the full orgasm through the excessive speed of the husband’s reactions, i.e., through premature ejaculation (ejaculatio precox) or through some mal-adjustment of the relative shapes and positions of the organs. So complex, so profound, are woman’s sex-instincts that in rousing them the man is rousing her whole body and soul. And this takes time. More time indeed than the average husband dreams of spending upon it. Yet woman has at the surface a small vestigial organ called the clitoris, which corresponds morphologically to the man’s penis, and which, like it, is extremely sensitive to touch-sensations. This little crest, which lies anteriorly between the inner lips round the vagina, erects itself when the woman is really tumescent, and by the stimulation of movement it is intensely roused and transmits this stimulus to every nerve in her body. But even after a woman’s dormant sex-feeling is aroused and all the complex reactions of her being have been set in motion, it may take from ten to twenty minutes of actual physical union to consummate her feeling, while one, two or three minutes of actual union often satisfies a man who is ignorant of the art of controlling his reactions so that he may experience the added enjoyment of a mutual simultaneous orgasm.”

Elizabeth: And, of course, Stopes gives instruction on family planning in this incredible book. She warns against coitus interruptus – not because of its ineffectiveness, but because it can have a negative effect on a woman – “It tends to leave the woman in “mid-air” as it were; to leave her stimulated and unsatisfied, and therefore it has a very bad effect on her nerves and general health, particularly if it is done frequently.” She suggests that lack of sex can lead to sleeplessness, disease, loss of vitality, and more. She discusses couples for whom children – particularly too many children – were an undue burden. Though she does not give great detail on actual contraceptive methods (other than the “middle of the month” method – avoiding sex except when a woman is far enough from her ovulation period so as to avoid pregnancy), asserts that every child should be planned. And ultimately that sentiment informed her future as a birth control and family planning advocate. “Every baby a wanted baby” was the motto for the family planning clinic in London.

Marie Stopes Birth Control

Advertisement for lecture by Marie Stopes on birth control.Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Averill: For a self-confessed 37-year-old virgin, she did pretty well for herself in doling out sex advice. The book was a tremendous success, and thousands of letters poured in seeking advice on contraception. Responding to these inquiries, she wrote Wise Parenthood, which included detailed drawings of the human reproductive system and a range of contraceptive information. Her primary recommendation was built on the conversations she had with Margaret Sanger years before – she preferred a cervical cap with a quinine pessary. Though some criticized her recommendation – Anna Haslam, an Irish suffragist and birth control advocate, for example, exchanged correspondences with Stopes for years, and cautioned that such a device would be inaccessible to working and poor women.

Elizabeth: Recognizing the limits of her previous publications, Stopes finally addressed the working poor with her 1919 A Letter to Working Mothers. After the birth of a stillborn child in that same year, 38-year-old Stopes decided that doctors could not be trusted – not with her health or pregnancies, or that of others. Two years later she and Roe opened the Mother’s Clinic in London. The clinic on Marlborough Street was a resounding success, serving thousands every week, with women waiting in line for hours. It was staffed by midwives, who dispensed birth control information, and Stopes’s own “Pro-Race” brand cervical cap. It was almost too successful; Stopes had to launch a fundraising campaign through her personal newsletter just to meet the demand.

Averill: The clinic did not perform abortions – in fact, Stopes opposed abortion, and instead focused the effort on disseminating birth control as thoroughly as possible. In addition to the cervical cap, they counseled on coitus interruptus (despite Married Love’s recommendation to avoid it), and Stopes rediscovered the ancient Greek method of soaking a sponge in olive oil and using that as a contraceptive. The oil creates a barrier through which the sperm cannot, in theory, swim. The viscosity of the oil slows or sometimes (and probably hopefully) immobilizes the little buggers. Not the most effective measure, by any means. Certainly we, on this podcast, do not condone the use of olive oil as a contraceptive. But Marie got an idea in her head, and she doubled down on it when challenged – which was true of things like olive oil birth control, and other things, like eugenics.

Elizabeth: Stopes loved the attention. She had long modeled herself on the style and appearance of famous dancers – she kept her curly brown hair cropped short, and favored brightly colored and flowing dressed, scarves, and floppy hats. Her success and fame really peaked from the launch of Married Love to 1925, when her limelight began to fade. Stopes was a household name in the British empire. Children sang a nursery rhyme as they skipped rope on the playgrounds:

“Jeanie Jeanie, full of hopes
Read a book by Marie Stopes
But, to judge from her condition,
She must have read the wrong edition!’

Marie Stopes Birth Control

Dr. Marie C Stopes, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington DC

Averill: Kate Fisher and Simon Szretzer have done a great deal of work through oral histories dealing with sex and sexuality in the UK between 1920 and 1960, and many of their respondents discuss the significance of Stopes’s publications in their lives. Gill, born in 1920, said “Oh my mother gave me a book before I was married, Ma…Mary Stops, think it was, Stops was she called, Stops, Stopes?… I rea that … and she did an enormous amount of good because it was not a subject that was discussed anywhere.” Similarly, Hugh and Angela talked about how Married Love changed their marriage for the better. “She didn’t know anything about it when she got married,” said Hugh, “If I didn’t know about birth control, she wouldn’t have known anything. We’d have finished up with a big family again… I had the book Marie Stopes… I bought that. It’s maybe still up in the loft.” To which Angela chimed in, “I think it probably taught me because I was very innocent.”

Elizabeth: Stopes’s greatest legacy is far and away the clinics she opened – the Mothers’ Clinic moved to central London in 1925, and then she opened clinics in Leeds in April 1934; Aberdeen in October 1934; Belfast in October 1936; Cardiff in October 1937; and Swansea in January 1943. This network of clinics developed into the Marie Stopes International, and non-governmental organization that has ties to some 5000 outreach centers around the world. Her work provided birth control and family planning access to thousands of women in her time, and thousands more since. But like Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, Stopes was more than the sum of her sex manual and birth control clinic.

Averill: Like many of the sexologists, leading scientists, and intellectuals of her day, Stopes was also deeply involved in the emerging eugenics movement. She founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, and was one of the leaders at the second International Eugenics Conference, which was held in New York City. Alexander Graham Bell was the Honorary President, and, according to the Eugenics Review, under American leadership and dominance, “the work of eugenicists disrupted by World War I in Europe was to resume.”

Elizabeth: And just an interesting side note: Bell was deaf and was a leader in the movement to teach lip-reading to deaf students, as opposed to sign language because he believed it would “normalize” them more. This was actually against what many deaf advocates wanted however. Oralists like Bell, influenced by new ideas of racial hierarchy and evolution saw sign language as a primitive, primordial “jargon.” In order to truly integrate the deaf into the mainstream, they argued, the deaf would have to learn to read lips and speak English in order to seamlessly blend into the dominate culture. Oralism highlighted fears of racial backtracking and movements towards an American melting pot- so it makes sense that he was part of the eugenics movement as well.

Averill: While there was no official legislation ever passed in Britain, Stopes and her fellow British eugenicists were essential to the more subtle policies and practices that supported the health and improvement of the population. Some states, like Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, passed compulsory sterilization laws in the early 1930s. Key figures like H.G. Wells, the Huxleys – as in Aldous, author of Brave New World, and evolutionist and first director of UNESCO Julian – and Marie Stopes spread eugenic goals and efforts in their individual projects and collaborative works. For prominent British intellectuals like the Huxleys, Stopes, Wells, and Roe, birth control would lead to a better population. A better population would serve King, crown, and Empire. Stopes felt so passionate about the movement and the power of the birth control movement that she quit her job at the university to focus full-time on the birth control clinic in 1920.

Marie Stopes Birth Control

Logo from the Second International Congress of Eugenics Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The Eugenics movement was, of course, an international conversation. Marissa and Averill talked about this a bit in their episode on fascism and uteruses last spring – how the Nazis really tainted the eugenics movement permanently with their employment of a racist agenda of negative eugenic practices, like forced sterilization, homosexual ‘reeducation,’ and euthanasia of mentally and physically disabled Germans. And it’s true that a lot of the discussions about eugenics was less common in the public forum, but it did not go away with the Nazi taint. Disability historians even argue that the American eugenic movement didn’t slow down after the Nazis but continued just as strong- look at the forced and coerced sterilization of Native American and Black women in the 20th century. The Eugenic movement was founded by Francis Galton – Charles Darwin’s cousin – who was influenced by Darwin’s 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species. Darwin himself never dared to take his discussion of evolution and natural selection to the issue of the human race. On the other hand, he did little to combat the Social Darwinist movement as it took shape.

Averill: Stopes actually met Galton when she was young, and like many young up-and-coming scholars in the science community, she was undoubtedly awed by the famous man and his radical ideas.

Eugenics manifests in two general approaches: positive and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics generally refers to providing health care and support for mothers and infants; genetic counseling (for whom you’d be suited to procreate with); and rewarding particular individuals for procreating. Negative eugenics, as we’ve already noted, relies on curbing certain populations’ ability to procreate – through birth control, compulsory abortions and sterilizations, and anti-miscegenation laws. Eugenic societies like Stopes’s Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress were widespread across Europe, with most starting in the late 19th century. Basically, if you were somebody, you probably belonged to a eugenic society.

Elizabeth: Margaret Sanger also moved in and out of eugenic society circles. Again, birth control and access to it was seen as a measure to improve the overall population. Smaller families mean that fewer people have to share resources; women who aren’t constantly pregnant or nursing can live better, more educated, healthier lives; and the cumulative factor will ease the burden on the planet, society, and individual families. Sanger’s mother died a very early death, which Sanger blamed on her poor health due to having eleven children and multiple miscarriages.

Averill: While there are overtones of her eugenic ideas in both Married Love and Wise Parenthood, the eugenicist in Marie Stopes shone in her newsletter, the Birth Control News.

In an editorial in July 1922, Stopes wrote:

“Sterilisation of the unfit raises a hornet’s nest, but no one worries at all about the daily sterilisation now going on of the fit. Young married men of the professional classes are today often forced by conditions to remain sterile, though they passionately desire the healthy children they could have if they did not have hordes of defectives to support in one way or the other.”

Averill: Stopes was a proponent of the forced sterilization movement – which gained widespread popularity in a number of European countries and American states in the 1920s and 30s. Britain never implemented or authorized that kind of eugenic action, unlike Finland or Czechoslovakia, which came even later to this party — the Czechs launched their sterilization program in the 1970s, and sterilized 90,000 women before the program was shut down in the fall of the Communist regime there. So in that quote from Stopes’s editorial, she is arguing against those who asserted that forced sterilization did not belong in Britain. She is saying that those who bristle against this measure don’t seem to be paying attention to the social ills that are created by NOT sterilizing people. Young men can’t go find suitable partners and have happy little white British families because they have to work to pay taxes to support the broods of poor and sickly and unwanted children of those who SHOULD be sterilized.

Elizabeth: It’s probably fair to say, then, that Marie Stopes was not a big fan of the welfare state that Britain was expanding even in the early 1920s.

The eugenicist publication was her mouthpiece to discuss her views on racial inferiorities – she described the Italians as a “low-grade race,” and threads of antisemitism garnished the magazine. She was particularly convinced that the ‘degenerative’ and ‘defective’ should be sterilized. Her eugenicist views even led to estrangement from her only child; when Harry Roe-Stopes endeavored to marry a woman who wore glasses, Marie Stopes objected loudly and persistently. She apparently shuddered to think that such a trait would be passed down to subsequent Roe-Stopes generations. When he married the love of his life anyway, Stopes cut him out of her will. When she passed in 1958, she left the bulk of her estate to the Royal Society of Literature rather than her family.

Averill: Wow, she sounds like a peach.

In 1922 a Roman Catholic physician, Halliday Sutherland, wrote Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians. In it he alleged that Stopes’s clinics and books were birth control experiments intended to exploit the working poor. In fact, particularly later in life, Stopes was extremely harsh toward the poor and indigent, and argued that such individuals should be sterilized to prevent them from passing on their socio-economic genetics. Still, she launched a libel suit against Sutherland, at which both presented expert medical testimony. Stopes won the initial appeal, but Sutherland ultimately won the case when he appealed to the House of Lords. The highly publicized trial ended up working in her favor, and she seemed to relish the attention. She wrote inciting letters to the Pope, and even once wrote to Henry Ford to appeal to him to aid her in her fight against the “evil” of the Catholic Church.

Elizabeth: The letter is pretty funny, so just for kicks:

“You are the only man alive I know of who has the vision and the power to do something big the world very much needs,” Stopes wrote… “my husband and myself founded the first birth control clinic in the British Empire and we have had a great amount of gratitude from poor and rich and learned alike, but we have found ourselves up against immense forces of suppression and evil. The chief source of evil is the… Roman Catholic hierarchy… So I am writing to ask you with all the earnestness of a fellow reformer to help us in what will prove the very biggest fight in history for human health, happiness and peace against the reactionary forces which would deprive the masses of these. You are so gloriously rich, and could spare a million or two pounds so easily – won’t you send me that right now?

Averill: In addition to publishing Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control in 1933, a formal rebuttal to the accusation that her birth control clinics were “experimenting” on the public, her public engagements exploded, as everyone wanted to have the famous Marie Stopes speak at their events.

Elizabeth: At the same time, the Church – which had helped to finance Sutherland’s case against Stopes – banned her books and her film Maisie’s Marriage. British newspapers feared the Irish censors, and refused to even run ads for her books. Her quarrel with Sutherland and the Church turned a corner to paranoia. Late in life she was convinced every misfortune was a Roman plot against her.

Marie Stopes Birth Control
‘Racial’ Synthetic sponge, London, England,1940-1960 Cedit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Averill: She was always a bit difficult to get along with, but as she got older, Marie Stopes became unbearable. She alienated her allies, friends, and family. After 1938, when she and Vendon Roe separated, she sunk into a deep depression, writing terrible poetry and publishing books that brought on unfavorable reviews and poor sales. She was at odds with the Catholic Church, the medical community, and her own kin. She was racist and narcissistic and heterosexist and a terrible poet. And yet. She opened clinics that brought access to birth control to women who were in desperate need. She changed the lives of ignorant women like Gill and Angela with her frank and honest sex manual – and may have introduced the female orgasm to an entire generation of women. In 1999, Guardian readers voted her “Woman of the Millennium.”

Elizabeth: Wow, I think this is just another example that hero-worship never suits us. All people are flawed and many of our “heroes” are not good people. But they can still give us good things, it’s how we use those legacies that matter.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of Dig. Follow us on FacebookTwitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

Show Notes

Janet Copeland, “Marie Stopes,” History Review (March 2009)

Cyril Greenland, “Dangerous Women, Dangerous Ideas,” Sieccan Newsletter (in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality v 11 Fall/Winter 2002)

Harold Ellis, “Marie Stopes: pioneer of family planning,” Notable Women in Healthcare v 19 i 2 (February 2009)

Howard Falcon-Lang, “The secret life of Dr Marie Stopes,” BBC News

Zoe Williams, “Marie Stopes: a turbo-Darwinist ranter, but right about birth control,” The Guardian

Carmel Quinlan, “‘Dark and Obscure to the Average Wife’: Marie Stopes, Anna and Thomas Haslam, and the Birth Control Question,” Womens Studies 30, (2001)

Susan Raga, “9 Forms of Birth Control Used in the Ancient World,” Mental Floss

Sanger, Margaret, et al. The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 4 : Round the World for Birth Control, 1920-1966 (University of Illinois Press, 2016.)

Stopes, Marie, Married Love

Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, “‘We weren’t the sort that wanted intimacy every night’: Birth control and abstinence in England, c 1930-1960,” The History of the Family 15 (2010)

Marie Stopes: A Brief Biography,” Curtin University Library Women’s Health Collection

Further Reading

Briant, Keith. Passionate Paradox: The Life of Marie Stopes. New York: W. W. Norton, 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.

Fisher, Kate. Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. This history of British women’s changing attitudes toward marriage, sex, and birth control includes a great deal of information about Stopes’s activities in support of birth control and sex education.

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 that uses the Stopes and Stopes-Roe papers extensively. Heavy emphasis on Stopes’s 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.

Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon, with Ian Scott. Marie Stopes and Birth Control. Hove, England: Wayland, 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.

Marie Stopes was one of the most influential women in British history. She brought birth control information to millions of women around the world. Learn more about this complicated figure in our history podcast, or read our blog post. #histsex #birthcontrol #women #womenhistory


Mark Sutherland · December 24, 2017 at 5:28 am

Hi Averill and Elizabeth,

I listened to your podcast on Dr Marie Stopes with interest. I am reaching out because I thought you might be interested in Dr Halliday Sutherland’s life prior to the 1923 Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial, which puts his opposition to Dr Stopes into context.

Born in 1882, Sutherland qualified as a medical doctor in 1906. By 1910 he was in the forefront of the fight against tuberculosis, a disease that killed 70,000 and disabled 150,000 people annually in Britain. In addition to his duties as Medical Director of London’s “St Marylebone Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption”, he set up an “open-air” school in the bandstand of Regents’ Park, produced Britain’s first cinema public health film and edited a book on TB that led to a knighthood for his mentor, Sir Robert Philip.

At that time, tuberculosis was thought to be a disease of heredity, not least because it affected the poor (the so-called “unfit”) around three times more than wealthier persons. The new science of eugenics confirmed that this was the case. Karl Pearson, Professor of Eugenics at London University wrote that “the influence of environment is not one-fifth of heredity, and quite possibly not one-tenth of it.”

Hereditary causes sought hereditary cures: “The bulk of the tuberculous,” wrote Pearson, “belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage. Everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize that the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate.” In other words, TB was not a medical problem so much as “Nature’s way” to strengthen British racial stocks.

This view was shared at the top of the medical profession. In his address to the Conference of the British Medical Association (“BMA”) in July 1912 the president, Sir James Barr, said:

“Nature…weeds out those who have not got the innate power of recovery from disease, and by means of the tubercle bacillus and other pathogenic organisms she frequently does this before the reproductive age, so that a check is put on the multiplication of idiots and the feeble-minded. Nature’s methods are thus of advantage to the race rather than to the individual.”

Working against the disease in the slums of London in around this time, Sutherland had formed a contrary view. He published his findings in the Dispensary’s annual report and, in November 1912, in the British Medical Journal. In “The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis”, he wrote that TB was not hereditary, but was primarily an infective disease.

Given that Stopes and her subsequent biographer drew attention to the “Roman Catholic doctor,” it is worth noting that at this time, Sutherland was a Presbyterian by baptism, but an atheist or agnostic by belief.

His views on TB made little difference. The Eugenics Education Society continued to lobby Parliament for eugenic laws and achieved success for the first time with the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913. Active service in World War 1 interrupted his work, though in September 1917 he took up the cause against eugenics in a speech “Consumption: Its Cause and Cure”.

At this point, the “Roman Catholic doctor” was a member of the Church of Scotland (he had joined in 1914 as a preliminary to war).

In his “Consumption” speech, Sutherland railed against eugenists [both Pearson and Sutherland used this older form of “eugenicist”]:

“But why should you set out to prevent this infection and to cure the disease? There are some self-styled eugenists…who declaim that the prevention of disease is not in itself a good thing. They say the efficiency of the State is based upon what they call ‘the survival of the fittest’. This war has smashed their rhetorical phrase. Who now talks about the survival of the fittest, or thinks himself fit because he survives? I don’t know what they mean. I do know that in preventing disease you are not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong. And I do know that those evil conditions which will kill a child within a few months of birth, and slay another when he reaches the teens, will destroy yet another when he comes to adult life.”

This was not, however, merely a battle of ideas, but one with real-world impacts:

“Tuberculous milk [which] kills 10,000 children every year and creates an amount of child sickness, suffering and sorrow so widespread as to be incomprehensible to a finite mind, and no more natural than if their food had been poisoned with arsenic. Yet in London to-day, one out of even eleven churns of milk arriving at our railway termini contains this death-dealing virus.”

Tuberculous milk could be rendered harmless by pasteurisation, as was the practice in the United States at that time. Yet in Britain, despite having the technology and the backing of a recommendation of a Royal Commission, British authorities had failed to act.

Regardless of the reason(s), while the views of Sir James Barr prevailed, the government of the day were not likely to be pressured to solve this problem. In 1918 Barr, by now no longer president of the BMA but still respected and influential, said:

“Until we have some restriction in the marriage of undesirables the elimination of the tubercle bacillus is not worth aiming at. It forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit. This world is not a hothouse; a race which owed its survival to the fact that the tubercle bacillus had ceased to exist would, on the whole, be a race hardly worth surviving. Personally, I am of opinion—and I think such opinion will be shared by most medical men who have been behind the scenes and have not allowed their sentiments to blind them—that if to-morrow the tubercle bacillus were non-existent, it would be nothing short of a national calamity. We are not yet ready for its disappearance.”

The following year, in 1919, Sutherland became a “Roman Catholic doctor”.

When Stopes opened her Mother’s Clinic in 1921, Barr saw it as the way restrict the progeny of “undesirables”. He became a vice-president of her Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress and, on May 26th, 1921 (on the eve of her Queen’s Hall rally) he wrote to her saying:

“You and your husband have inaugurated a great movement which I hope will eventually get rid of our C3 population and exterminate poverty. The only way to raise an A1 population is to breed them.” [A1 refers to best recruits for military service, while C3 describes those mentally and physically unfit to serve.]

Barr testified for Stopes on the first day of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial on February 21st, 1923.

In the trial, Sutherland said that describing Stopes’ work as an experiment, it was as a social experiment rather than a surgical one. Of course, that was for the Court to decide.

In the trial Stopes was forthright about why she set up her society and her clinic:

“The object of the Society is, if possible, to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and the generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C.3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work.”

At this point, the clinic was an achievement, Stopes’ campaign for the compulsory sterilisation of “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal” and the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced” and “parasites” (see Chapter XX of “Radiant Motherhood”) was a work in progress.

While the passage of “Birth Control” that was at the centre of the libel trial are well-known, it was in the subsequent paragraphs in which Sutherland’s motives for opposing Stopes were revealed: the social injustice of the negative eugenic agenda.

“…if children are to be denied to the poor as a privilege of the rich, then it would be easy to exploit the women of the poorer classes. If women have no young children why should they be exempt from the economic pressure applied to men?”

“The English poor have already lost even the meaning of the word “property,” and if the birth controllers had their way the meaning of the word “home” would soon follow. The aim of birth control is generally masked by falsehood, but the urging of this policy on the poor points unmistakenly to the Servile State.”

The Servile State was a concept he borrowed from his friend Hilaire Belloc. It was a Britain in which poor and working class people had no societal role other than as workers.

Thank you for your podcast and I hope you have found my research of interest. Please let me know if you would like sources, references for the quotations and facts I cite.

Mark Sutherland,

    Averill Earls · January 13, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks for this lengthy and unsolicited comment, Mark!

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