This weeks biography of a woman in history was submitted by Claire Healey
Marie Stopes – Sex Advisor Extraordinaire
Marie Stopes began her career as a scientist, studying botany and geology. She excelled in academia (despite the fact that she was initially not allowed to attend lectures, and after taking, and passing the same examinations as the men, was only awarded a certificate), becoming the youngest person in Britain to obtain a doctor of science degree and the first female academic at University of Manchester.
After her own unsuccessful marriage, Stopes became interested in the sex question. She was appalled by the level of ignorance surrounding sex (think of Downton Abbey. Do you think those people know what a reverse cowgirl is?). Determined to remedy this, in 1918, Stopes published Married Love, a how-to love-making-guide containing such shocking ideas as women you know, actually wanting ‘it’. The book was an instant bestseller, the initial run selling out within two weeks and, by the end of the year, the text had been reprinted six times.
Stopes followed up this success with Wise Parenthood, concise guide to contraception. Stopes care passionately about contraception and women’s free access to it (Stopes even invented her own cervical cap). She believed that, ‘No woman can call herself free who doesn’t own and control her own body’. Her stance on contraception drew intense criticism from some quarters, particularly from the Catholic Church, some of whom wanted to see Stopes prosecuted.
Stopes persevered, and in 1921, opened what was to be first of numerous clinics offering fee-sex advice. These spaces were designed to be warm and inviting, the reception almost like a cosy sitting room. To many at the time the idea of ‘contraception’ carried the stigma of being something that only prostitutes needed; the clinic’s décor choices were part of a deliberate attempt to ‘normalise’ contraception and bring it into a world that its clients would recognise and feel comfortable in. Poor working-class woman, desperate to break the new-ending cycle of pregnancy, flocked to them.
Stopes also humanised the people she helped to the wider public. In talks, lectures and articles, she illuminated the dire situations some women found themselves in and stressed why it was so important for women to have autonomy over her own in body. She described one case, ‘She [the client] had been six other times pregnant; every time a natural abortion took place the fourth or fifth month, and the last time because her drunken husband had kicked her where the child lay .. . I wish I could make you realize what I have now so vividly seen as the result of our clinic records: it isn’t the number of children; it is what the woman has endured in her motherhood that is the reason we need to give birth control information’.
Despite some super dodgy thoughts on eugenics (advocating the sterilisation of the ‘inferior’, depraved and feeble-minded), Stopes made birth control respectable topic and helped push sex into the 20th century. Her legacy lives on and Marie Stope’s clinics continue to support woman in their reproductive health choices to this day.