Apr 2, 2012

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

In Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, June Rose chronicles the life and work of renowned social reformer and early popularizer of contraception Marie Stopes. Stopes was a pioneer in many ways: she received a PhD from the University of Munich in 1904, being the first woman to do so; she was the first woman lecturer at the University of Manchester; and in 1907 she travelled to Japan to research fossil plants – this at a time when it was highly unusual for women to travel anywhere unaccompanied, let alone in scientific expeditions to Japan. She was unconventional from a young age, and this willingness to challenge dominant social norms proved crucial in her later work.

I must confess I was far more interested in the “and the Sexual Revolution” bits of this biography than in the “Marie Stopes” ones. It’s not that Stopes’ life wasn’t interesting: it was fascinating to read about the makings of a social reformer, as well as about all the times her path crossed with those of some of the most interesting Edwardians around: she met everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Bertrand Russell to H.G. Wells to Captain Scott (whose ill-fated polar expedition she requested to join – in retrospect, it seems a very good thing that he said no). The problem with the more personal sections if this biography, however, was that June Rose’s approach was at times a little too speculative for my taste.

For example, she suggests that Stopes might have been bisexual, and that a complicated involvement with a tutor, Clothilde Von Wyss, was behind her strong homophobia later in life. I don’t want to say that this is impossible, of course; it’s just that Rose sounds too certain based on too little evidence – not to mention the fact that her theory has too many uncomfortable echoes of stereotypical assumptions about predatory gay teachers. I was also slightly put off by her portrayal of Stopes’ marriage dynamics. Again, it’s not that I don’t think that Marie’s constant questioning of traditional power dynamics in relationships would have had a psychological cost for a man raised to take on a patriarchal role; it’s just that June Rose’s assumption that her poor husband must have felt domineered, and her constant reminders that readers ought to feel extremely sorry for him, seemed out of place in a book like this.

But really, these were only minor aspects of Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. With that out of the way, let me focus on the good – and there’s plenty of it. Among many other things, this book is a fascinating history of social and political attitudes towards contraception, female sexuality, and heterosexual relationship dynamics. Reading it reminded me of what Amy was saying recently about the cyclical nature of anti-contraception arguments. So much of what Marie Stopes had to face is still scarily familiar now.

June Rose does an excellent job of drawing attention to just how groundbreaking Marie’s work on sexuality and contraception was. And at every turn, she reminds readers of what she was up against:
By 1911, the National Council of Public Morals had recommended the teaching of nature study as an introduction to the facts of life. One or two of their tracks actually mentioned married life but always with a warning that too much indulgence could be dangerous. The Boy Scouts, the eugenics lobby and sections of the Women’s Suffrage movement, alarmed at the scourge of venereal disease and at the assaults on women, supported the purity campaign. Now Marie Stopes, a self-confessed virgin wife, had violated her purity with a manuscript that claimed that women’s sexuality was as powerful and therefore as dangerous as men's. So strong was the taboo on the subject that even in the sixth edition (1915) of T.H .Huxley’s Human Physiology, no editor had dared to include a reference to the human reproductive system. In writing so openly about ‘married love’ Marie had taken an enormous risk.
First of all, how creepy is the fact that a National Council of Public Morals even existed? Secondly, it’s amazing to think that in the immediate aftermath of the Victorian age, Marie Stopes did so much to popularise the notion that women also experienced sexual desire and pleasure. Almost a hundred years later, this remains something that some people can’t seem to wrap their minds around. However, acknowledging how groundbreaking her work was doesn’t mean we can’t also discuss its many limitations. Here is a good example of Stopes’ tendency to take two steps forward followed by one step back:
Ten days before Married Love was published, Marie herself had doubts about the value of the ‘pristine purity’ of the virgin state. In a draft letter to an unnamed correspondent, she pondered whether too much emphasis was placed on the woman retaining her virginity before marriage: ‘in giving her body love a woman gives her “all” (while a man hardly does as much).’ This, she argued, divided women into three unhealthy categories:
a) The unmarried—never allowed to have any sex joy or relief however much they fundamentally suffer for the lack of it...
b) The married (possibly burdened without limit with childbearing) with perhaps a normal (but often excessive) sex life.
c) The outcast—in order to balance skin healthy percentage of unmarried they are overworked to the point of sex machines... that a woman should never give herself save for love is an axiom; but it is outrageously violated in our social system…
The fact that in the early 20th century she was questioning the emphasis society put on female virginity is quite remarkable. However, this excerpt also shows how quickly she went from acknowledging that women had sexual feelings to a prescriptive, normative stance full of assumptions about those whose sexual lives didn’t follow the particular script she happened to privilege. We can recognise that easily today without this erasing the fact that Married Love was a momentous book.

It was extremely interesting to see how her progressive ideas coexisted with these and other limitations – she was, as I mentioned above, extremely heteronormative, as well as strongly against the legalisation of abortion and the idea of sex outside of marriage. Or at least she positioned herself as such in public: reading Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution reminded me of my discussion with Aarti about Mary Seacole and the way social pioneers and reformers often adopt a veneer of hyper-respectability in all other areas of their lives, in order to best advance their cause. It’s possible that like many other early feminists, Marie Stopes was picking her battles very, very carefully. Making female sexuality and contraception respectable within the confines of heterosexual marriage was a huge battle – perhaps she feared that extending it even one inch further than that would have made it a lost cause.

Marie Stopes was also interested in subverting traditional gender dynamics in ways that went far beyond the sexual. As June Rose tells us,
Marie advocated that both husband and wife should be free to go alone on long trips, weekends, or walking tours ‘without the possibility of a breath of jealousy or suspicion…’ and asserted that that marriage could never reach its full stature ‘until women possess as much intellectual freedom and freedom of opportunity within it as do their partners’. In her marriage to Gates, Marie had assumed that freedom for herself, and in her relationships with men became the dominant partner, since for her the notion of equality between the sexes was almost impossible to practice.
At the same time, in her book, as in her life, she looks for eternal romance: ‘For man is still essentially the hunter, the one who experiences the desires and thrills of the chase, and dreams ever of coming unawares upon Diana in the Woodlands.’ Wives, she believed, should be always escaping. She disapproved of married people sharing a bedroom because it was impossible for the woman to keep her aura of mystery and romance if her husband saw her ‘during most of the unlovely and even ridiculous proceedings of the toilet. Now it may enchant a man once—perhaps even twice—or at long intervals to watch his godless screw her hair up into a tight and unbecoming knot and soap her ears. But it is inherently too unlovely a proceeding to retain indefinite enchantment.’
Again, we have a good example of how Stopes would go some way towards equality but not really any further. Her ideas about equality were boycotted by strict essentialist notions of gender roles that forbade real intimacy. These ideas are not unlike how many people still conceive of heterosexual relationships today, and they were all the more fascinating to read about for that.

Married Love was Marie Stopes’ first success, but today most people are likely to associate her name with birth control. Her quest to popularise contraception, however, came later in life:
Marie had written Married Love for women like herself, educated middle class wives who had been left ignorant of the physical side of marriage. Her tone in her book and in the letters of advice sent to readers implied that they shared a community of interests and the income. She had no particular interest in the lower classes and in Wise Parenthood had written censoriously of the ‘less thrifty and conscientious’ who bred rapidly and produced children ‘weakened and handicapped by physical as well as mental warping and weakness’. ‘The lower classes were,’ she wrote in a letter to the Leicester Daily Post, ‘often thriftless, illiterate, and careless.’
Her attitude changed to some extent, and she had her husband went on to found the Mother’s Clinic in London, one of the earliest contraception clinics in existence:
The Mother’s Clinic had four aims: to help the poor (and advice was given free); to test out the attitude of the working class toward birth control, hitherto considered hostile; to obtain first-hand data about contraception in practice and to collect scientific data on the sex life of women. The Clinic was kept deliberately simple to demonstrate that birth control advice could be given to the ‘poor and ignorant’ in a small institution without spending large sums of money. This was necessary since Humphrey and Marie had bought the house, renovated it, and equipped it themselves and would pay for the staff and upkeep.”

Marie’s involvement with the dissemination of birth control, however, should not be taken to mean that she had any sort of epiphany when it comes to class privilege. Her activism went hand in hand with problematic attitudes towards class and race; and as in the case of many other early birth control advocates, with an interest in eugenics. Marie and her colleagues believed that the “lowers orders” were “still producing in excessive numbers and producing a race which is not fitted for the Empire which we have to govern.
Many of the excerpts of letters and speeches included in Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution reveal the problematic rhetoric these early advocates used, as well as their extremely paternalistic approach to helping working class mothers have access to contraception. But once again, we can acknowledge all this while still recognising the very real, tangible benefits of the practical knowledge about birth control Stopes and others helped disseminate. It always seems disingenuous to me to see anti birth control advocates claim that we can’t recognise the good of the work of early reformers such as Marie Stopes without aligning ourselves with their classist and racist ideology. Here is what June Rose has to say on the subject:
Marie was an elitist, and idealist, interested in creating a society in which only the best and the beautiful should survive. Brought up on the ideas of Darwin, she responded enthusiastically to the view that his theory of natural selection argued for the need to create a super breed of humans. She was in sympathy with the aims of the Eugenics Society, founded in 1908 by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to encourage the prevalence of the more suitable races or strains of blood over the last suitable. Like writers of the caliber of Shaw and H.G. Wells, Marie was inspired by the simplistic notion of human perfectibility.
To our ears, in the aftermath of Hitler, there is something blood-chilling in her fearless quest for excellence, sacrificing ordinary humanity on the altar of The Race. But at the time, the notion of suppressing week for members of the next generation, reducing the need for institutions such as prisons and hospitals, and relieving the burden on tax payers was immensely attractive to many members of the wealthier classes.
Being human and therefore full of contradictions, Marie Stopes combined these simplistic and problematic notions with genuine warmth and compassion towards the individual working class mothers who wrote to her asking for advice. The book includes some excerpts from the thousands of letters she received weekly, and these demonstrate the extent to which people were kept in the dark about sexuality and reproductive health. The excerpts were some of my favourite sections in Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution — I’m now very interested in getting my hands on Mother England, an anthology of these letters that Stopes edited and published herself.

I’ll leave you with some more interesting bits:
The reasons for [Married Love’s] success are complex. Writing from a woman’s point of view, with an intensity of feeling with which her many readers would empathize, Marie had produced the first book about sex technique for women. In it she had dared to state a claim for female sexuality, for women sexual needs and sexual rights. Her book challenged the centuries of prejudice and superstition and the accretions of religious teaching which saw women’s bodies and women’s attractions as desirable but also dirty and corrupting and the lust for women as shameful and sinful. The wife’s fate, therefore, was to be a passive, suffering victim of her husband’s lust. Marie dismissed the idea that ‘nice’ women have no spontaneous sexual feelings and devoted a chapter, “The Fundamental Pulse”, to explaining women’s sexual instincts according to her own law of the “Periodicity of Recurrence of Desire in Women”, illustrated by two charts. Her records of her own and her friends’ peak period in the month may not have been strictly scientific but they were immensely important, because they lead women to understand that they had a right to sexual impulses and need not feel ashamed of them.

Her outspoken clarity gave her woman readers the courage to ask questions and to hope for improvement in their married lives: ‘as a girl I was taught that it was really rather misfortune to have the body, but that, as it was there, the best thing to do was to ignore it as far as possible,’ wrote and Mrs. M.F. from Pertshire, who described herself at forty-two, after a good marriage, as without desired and pleasure in love almost impossible. She asked Marie to write about the subject: ‘it is books like yours… that are needed to clear away the old evil conspiracy of secrecy which has ruined so many women’s lives.’”

Although in many of her ideas she was extremely progressive, Marie believed that progress was dependent on the class structure. She knew from personal experience that freedom for educated women depended on the servitude of their ‘sisters’ from the working-class. ‘How long would civilization as we know it today last if every woman of marriage age was married and buried children with no domestic help? Civilization as seen today would fall the pieces…’

Her work enhanced her reputation among those doctors interested in prevention that also made her enemies. In 1920 the Federation of Medical Women warned that if condoms were made available, ‘promiscuous intercourse would be looked upon as free from the risk of infection and to a great extent free from the risk of conception…’ This would introduce a phase of society ‘as vicious and degenerate and any of which history has record… moral degeneration and sex excess would rot the very foundation of society.’
They read it too: Woodsiegirl Writes


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  1. I admit, I was surpirsed to read you were more interested in the "sexual revolution" bits than the personal story having just read the first paragraph about her life. But it became very clear why you found those speculative parts problematic. I would find them quite frustrating to read too.

    But the "sexual revolution" parts sound extremely interesting!

    Wonderfully thoughtful post, Ana.

  2. I'm so glad I was born after trailblazer like Stopes!

  3. We need more Maries today with the new war against birth control.

  4. This book sounds fascinating! I read a little about Stopes during my studies, but have every now and then thought it would be nice to learn more about her life and work.

  5. I'm sure like most intelligent people of a repressed class (or gender in this case), Stopes figured out ways to work the system in her favor that seem like a major double-standard to us to now. But you can't argue with results.

  6. I don't know much about Marie Stopes, but it sounds like this book would really teach me a lot, not only about the woman, but about the times in which she lived. Great review on this one!

  7. I had never heard about Marie Stopes until last week an heroine from a book I'm reading is compared to her.
    I would love to read this book :)

  8. I think we should start the International Council of Public Morals, and try to force our "heathenish" ways on the rest of the world.

  9. This book sounds really interesting, as does Marie Stopes as a person. Definitely unfortunate how many of the conventions of the time that she did hold as her own, but still, I like what you said about her possibly picking her battles carefully. Adding to my wishlist! Also, yes, scary how cyclical the arguments and issues we face are....


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