Marie Stopes opened Britain’s first clinic offering birth control advice to married women. Born in Edinburgh in 1880, Stopes was an author, women’s rights campaigner and trained paleobotanist. She railed against the Catholic church and the male-dominated medical establishment. And her work – including her 1918 book Married Love – was pioneering.
She was also a fierce advocate for eugenics. This is the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding to improve the “quality” of a population’s genetic composition. She called for the “hopelessly rotten and racially diseased” to be sterilised and was vehemently opposed to interracial marriage. While her more famous publications were relatively benign, the bulk of her writing reveals a woman preoccupied with the “unfit” who was convinced by the powers of birth control to improve the biological quality of Britain’s population.
Reproductive rights and access to birth control are fundamental to women’s autonomy and key components of the feminist cause. In writing Married Love and establishing her birth control clinic, Stopes played a part in the development of reproductive rights in Britain. It is tempting, then, to use this centenary to celebrate her.
Traditionally, centenaries are moments for commemoration. They are often opportunities for either jingoistic festivity or collective grief. This is a dichotomy that leaves little space for nuance or careful consideration of the mixed legacies of problematic figures or events. So now, as the UK wrestles with its history and how it is told, anniversaries pose plenty of questions about how we should reckon with controversial figures who were driven by motivations that we should, by now, have rejected.
Stopes’ controversial legacy
Despite her manifest successes, Stopes is a contentious character. In 2020, Marie Stopes International changed its name and now goes by the abbreviated MSI Reproductive Choices. Established in the 1970s to expand on Stopes’ birth control work, the organisation provides sexual and reproductive healthcare worldwide.
MSI Reproductive Choices said that their decision was accelerated by the Black Lives Matter Movement and recognition that history writing and representation are always in dialogue with the contemporary moment. As such, how we choose to commemorate Stopes and her work is a potent topic now. Particularly as the current government is seeking to intervene in how historians and heritage organisations choose to represent the British past.
It is simultaneously true that Stopes was a pioneering advocate for (some) women and their reproductive rights – and that she was a sometimes vicious eugenicist. Few people in history were comedy villains or uncomplicated saints. But, we can do better than this “balance-sheet” approach to the past. It is not enough to simply acknowledge the flaws of those we seek to celebrate. Instead, we need to understand the fundamental role these wrongs played in their actions, attitudes and decision-making.
Condemnation or commemoration?
Stopes was a product of her age – eugenics was everywhere in early-20th-century Britain. I do not say that to excuse her writings or absolve her of her sins. But rather, to draw attention to the fact that intellectual life in this period of British history was profoundly coloured eugenics – a malevolent worldview that still has currency and continues to inflect our politics and ideologies today.
Rather than offer a straightforward celebration or condemnation of Stopes, it is perhaps more productive to use her as a tool to continue a conversation about reproductive rights, feminism, and the enduring legacy of eugenic thought. The historical details about her life and beliefs suggest that birth control activism had inequalities and cruelty baked into it from the very start.
They show how dependent supposedly progressive ideals in the early 20th century were on eugenics and social Darwinism (the use of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to justify certain social, political, or economic ends). And they reveal how feminist activism undertaken by middle-class white women has so frequently taken place at the expense of their poor, minority ethnic, queer, disabled and trans sisters.
Another problem with centenaries is that despite their efforts to memorialise and remind, they place temporal distance between the then and now. As we use this marker as an opportunity to reflect on the troubling history of the birth control movement in Britain, we must remember that these problems have not been resolved.
Eugenic ideals persist. Birth control is not always a straightforward instrument of freedom and autonomy. And narrow and exclusive versions of feminist activism continue. History is no static object of study, not least because it remains a constant presence in our lives today.
Agnes Arnold-Forster is a core collaborator on the Wellcome Trust-funded Healthy Scepticism project.
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