The death of Marie Stopes – 2 October 1958
This article also appears on Dorian Cope’s blog On This Deity.
“I have some things to say about sex, which, so far as I am aware, have not yet been said … things which seem to me to be of profound importance to men and women who hope to make their marriage beautiful.”
When my grandmother married in September 1918, she knew nothing about how babies were made. She thought perhaps they had something to do with storks or gooseberry bushes or that they came out of the belly button. If only someone had had the wisdom to give her a copy of Marie Stopes’ book Married Love, published just six months before, arguably the most influential book of the 20th century.
Marie Carmichael Stopes Sc.D, Ph.D began her career as a palaeobotanist but came to prominence as a sex educator. Seven years before she published Married Love she herself became a bride but Marie soon realised her husband was impotent. The marriage was never consummated. Despite her continued virginity and the disappointment of her failed nuptials, she assembled all the scientific facts about sex, relationships and sexual health she could lay her hands on. She didn’t want other men and women to naively blunder into a union without knowing what they were letting themselves in for. Then she picked up her pen.
“I have written this book for those who enter marriage normally and healthily, and with optimism and hope. If they learn its lessons they may be saved from some of the pitfalls in which thousands have wrecked their happiness.”
Married Love was turned down by numerous prudish publishing houses but finally she found small publisher willing to print. Unsurprisingly, it was an instant hit and was reprinted within a fortnight. Couples in the US were denied Marie’s teachings; the book was deemed obscene and banned until 1931.
At a stroke, she gave millions of British men and women the plain facts about sex, unabashed and in juicy anatomical detail. She tackled taboos like women’s orgasm, negotiation and libido, and suggested that carefully planned families will be healthier and happier. She gave women choices and proposed that a relationship should be a respectful union of equals.
Hmmm… Empowering women. Family planning. You can imagine how the Catholic church loathed her for undermining their disgraceful misogynistic doctrines.
Alas, it’s not all peaches and cream. Marie had some abhorrent views about eugenics and called for the “sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood … be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory.” She was accused of anti-Semitism and was a Nazi sympathiser. But don’t let her grotesque personal views detract from her very real achievements. To this day Marie Stopes International does profoundly valuable work offering information and advice about sex and sexual health.
In today’s grossly over-populated world Marie’s messages are as necessary as ever. When women know the facts about sex, sexual health and contraception, by choice they limit the number of children they bear. My grandmother bore two children, the first of who appeared six years after her wedding day. This long delay in childbearing may have been because she had read and digested Married Love’s chapter on delaying the first child. Or it may have been because she never read it and that she and my grandfather had infrequent, unfulfilling sex. I like to think the former, but fear the latter.