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Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes
1880-1958

Marie Stopes, the daughter of Henry Stopes and Charlotte Carmichael, was born in Edinburgh in 1880. Charlotte, the daughter of the artist, J. F. Carmichael, was the first woman in Scotland to obtain a university certificate. At university Charlotte was not allowed to attend lectures and although she took the same examinations as the male students, because she was a woman she was awarded a certificate rather than a degree. Charlotte's university experiences turned her into a passionate feminist and made sure her daughter was fully aware of the arguments for women's suffrage.

Henry Stopes was a distinguished scientist and Marie shared her father's interest in this subject. At the age of eighteen, Marie won a science scholarship at University College, London. Marie was a talented and committed student and in 1901 achieved a double first in botany. She continued her studies and in 1905 she obtained her DSc and became Britain's youngest doctor of Science.

Although very involved in her academic work, Marie Stopes was also interested in politics. Like her mother she supported the women's suffrage campaign but and eventually joined the Women's Freedom League. However, she was never arrested or sent to prison for her beliefs.

After several unsuccessful love affairs, Marie married Reginald Gates in 1911. Unlike Marie, Reginald held traditional views of how women should behave. He strongly opposed her membership of the Women's Freedom League. After several years of conflict Marie obtained a divorce from her husband in 1916.

During the First World War Marie began writing a book about feminism and marriage. In her book Married Life, Marie argued that marriage should be an equal relationship between husband and wife. However, she had great difficulty finding a publisher. Walter Blackie of Blackie & Son rejected her manuscript with the words: "The theme does not please me. I think there is far too much talking and writing about these things already… Don't you think you should wait publication until after the war? There will be few enough men for the girls to marry; and a book like this would frighten off the few." Blackie objected to passages such as, "far too often, marriage puts an end to women's intellectual life. Marriage can never reach its full stature until women possess as much intellectual freedom and freedom of opportunity within it as do their partners."

It was not until, March 1918, that Marie Stopes found a small company that was willing to take the risk of publishing Married Love. The book was an immediate success, selling 2,000 copies within a fortnight and by the end of the year had been reprinted six times. Married Love was also published in America but the courts declared the book was obscene and it was promptly banned.

Marie's next book was about birth-control. She had become interested in this subject after meeting Margaret Sanger, a birth-control campaigner from America. Sanger had been converted to socialism, while working as a nurse in the slums of New York. She observed that many women died of self-induced abortions or raised large families in poverty. Sanger began publishing her own newspaper where she argued in favour of birth-control and abortion. The main theme of her articles was that "no woman can call herself free who doesn't own and control her own body." After advice about birth-control appeared in her newspaper in 1915, she was charged with publishing an "obscene and lewd article". Margaret Sanger fled to Britain and it was while she was in London she met Marie Stopes.

After hearing Margaret Sanger's story Marie decided to start a birth-control campaign in Britain. She knew it would be dangerous as several people in Britain, including Richard Carlile, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, had been sent to prison for advocating birth-control.

In 1918 Stopes wrote a concise guide to contraception called Wise Parenthood. Marie Stopes' book upset the leaders of the Church of England who believed it was wrong to advocate the use of birth control. Roman Catholics were especially angry, as the Pope had made it clear that he condemned all forms of contraception. Despite this opposition, Marie continued her campaign and in 1921 founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control. With financial help from her rich second husband, Humphrey Roe, Marie also opened the first of her birth-control clinics in Holloway, North London on 17th March 1921.

Although Marie Stopes was not prosecuted, Guy and Rose Aldred, who published a pamphlet written by Margaret Sanger, were found guilty of selling an obscene publication. Many Roman Catholics believed that Marie should also be charged with an offence. Halide Southland wrote in an article in The Daily Express where he called for her to be sent to prison.

Sutherland also wrote a book, Birth Control, where he accused Marie Stopes of writing obscene books. Stopes sued him for libel and although she initially won the case, later the decision was overturned by the House of Lords.

Marie Stopes was involved in several other crusades during her life. This included an attempt to stop education authorities from sacking married women teachers. Marie also become involved in the campaign to persuade the Inland Revenue to tax husbands and wives separately.

Stopes spent the rest of her life campaigning for the causes she believed in. Much of her time was spent writing articles for her newspaper Birth Control News. Marie also wrote novels and poetry. This included Love's Creation (1928) and Love Songs for Young Lovers (1938). Marie Stopes died in 1958.

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