Dr Marie Stopes; A Truly Remarkable Woman

Marie Stopes In Her Lab (image not my mine)

Marie Stopes In Her Lab (image not my mine)

They say that all genius’ are complex people both emotionally and in their personalities. When it comes to the woman behind who bore the name Marie Stopes nothing truer could be said. I have just finished reading her biography; Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, by June Rose and I highly recommend it. I also have good timing as I finished the book on 17th March, the anniversary of when Dr Stopes opened her first clinic.

Here is where I confess, I struggle with biographies and factual books, I am a creature that prefers the fictional world to escape in, but from time to time I find something that sparks an interest in me and this book didn’t fail to deliver. 

Marie’s mother, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, was an argent member of the Womens Movement during Maries impressionable formative and adolescent years. Clearly this is where the future Dr Stopes would eventually get her ambition and campaigning gene from in later life. Her mother was as thirsty for knowledge, education and independence just as her daughter would be.

Stope’s father came from Quaker stock and had a passion for the natural world and was a fan of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. He was a gentle man compared to his head strong wife.

Marie was their first child and was born on 15th October 1880. both parents were great believers in the outside life style. Charlotte, like her daughter, was a late mother having her first child in her forties. Today we don’t think about that as late but in the Victorian period forty was late for a first child. For years later on 13th March 1884, Winnie was born.

Her mother Charlotte ruled the roost while her father, Henry, was the light hearted fun part of Marie’s up bringing. He trained the family cat Fluff to sit in a high chair and eat at the table. Seven years after marriage Charlotte felt trapped and regained an interest in the Women’s Movement again.  

Marie attended University College London and studied Botany & Geology. She won a B.Sc with First Class Honours in 1902 after studying both during the day and at night school. She went on to complete a D.Sc at University College London and was the youngest person to have achieved this. While she was finishing her D.Sc her father who had been the person to spark this passion in botany & geology, died on 5th December 1903.

Marie was not content with 2 degrees she went on to study a Ph.D in Palaeobotany at Munich University in 1904. She went on to be the first female lecturer at Manchester university. Already she is showing what a remarkable woman she was and that great things were still to come.

Young Marie Stopes

Young Marie Stopes

In 1907 Marie went to Japan, still a society relatively closed to western travellers. She met with a former male colleague Professor Fujii from Munich – Marie had formed a great attachment to him and they wrote affectionate “love” letters to each other. However Fujii was married and had a child and her work in Japan did not bring her in much contact with him.

At the end of 1910 she went to Canada to help date and study palaeobotany plants. This was an acknowledgement of her work in this field as she was to help the divided north American scholars. It was here she met and become engaged and married her first husband Canadian, Reginald Ruggles Gates. They returned to Hampstead to the home she shared with her ailing sister Winnie, in April 1911.

the title page to married love

the title page to married love

But this was not to be a happy marriage, by 1913 Marie had looked into arranging a divorce from her Canadian husband. This is another bold move, divorce was just not done then especially a woman seeking divorce from a husband. Eventually Marie determind to have her independence back and to be free from her husband sort out an annulment.

In 1915 Stopes starts work on Married Love. This is some what ironic as she is in the process of annuling her marriage and claiming non consummation and that she was still a virgin while writing this doom. The work takes 2 years and in that time she successfully gets her marriage annulled and in the eyes of the law she is still a virgin.

She struggles to find a publisher to print her risqué work on sexual practices within the confines of marriage was helped along by the man who would become her second husband, Humphrey Roe, a passionate advocate for Birth Control.

The couple soon become pregnant Marie is 38 years old. Sadly in 1919 the child is still born. This set back only boosts Marie forward to write a second book, Radiant Motherhood. It is worth pointing out Marie only thought birth control should be issued to Married women especially poor lower class women who often had very large families. In the wake of World War I like Baden Powell, Marie thought the lower classes were producing weak, ill children. Many of her ideas were linked to Eugenics and her ideas about race were dangerously close to those held by Hitler.

During 1920 Marie tried to persuade the Anglican Church that birth control was necessary within the confines of marriage. Not surprisingly she failed to convince the bishops who condemned her work as obscene and against God.

The following year in 1921 she opened her first clinic on Holloway Road, logo MSC legacy lives on London. But this is not without opposition. The most out spoken were the Catholic Church. She ended up in a libel case in 1923 with Dr Halliday Sutherland a Catholic Dr who accused her of experimenting on the poor.

As well as opening up her clinics Marie also produced large volumes of poetry, novels, and plays through out her life. It seemed as if Marie thrived on stress and keeping busy. She also meddled in politics from time to time offering to help settle disputes when miners went on strike. Marie loved coal mines and had spent time studying the fossils in them. This was not only bold but demonstrates how vain and important Marie felt she was.

Marie with the nurses from her Clinic

Marie with the nurses from her Clinic

Her relationship with her mother had been rocky, the older woman critised her daughters achievements and most likely jealous of her success. Charlotte was a scholar in Shakespeare and published items on the bard but never secured fame like her daughter.

In 1924 Marie gives birth to her only son, Harry. He would now become the centre of her world and she would be protective of him and push her husband out. It turns out the author of Married Love did not have the ideal marriage or sex life she wrote about in her work.

The most important part of her work is done at this point. She was over opinionated and in her eyes always right. She saw the world in very black and white terms her way as right all other ways as wrong.

Marie stopes stamp remembering her achievements

Marie stopes stamp remembering her achievements

Later in life she dedicated her time to try and achieve literary success. She managed to publish poetry and novels but none of those were met with the success and acclaim she got for Married Love and Radiant Motherhood.

She opened clinics and gave talks. It was clear that when Harry had grown and gone to school her second marriage had broken down, and Humphrey was incompetent in bed. He allowed her to take a lover to fulfil her sexual needs and the couple lived virtually separate lives. It wasn’t until five yeas after Humphrey had reaffirmed that he did not mind her taking a lover that Marie did, he was a man 33 years her junior. As her son grew up and went to university and she became more and more infatuated with her lover Keith Briant. She continued to try and make her self a poet of note.

The saddest part of her story for me was her attitude and resentment when her son chooses the woman he wanted to marry. Marie became childish and tried to stop the pair and eventually refused to go to the marriage. Her main dislike was that Mary, Harry’s fiancée wore glasses for short sightedness. The rift was slightly mended when her first grand child was born.

In 1957 Marie was diagnosed with terminal Breast Cancer. She refused to accept the diagnosis and looked for natural remedies she went to Germany to find natural cures however I think deep inside she was clutching at straws. She made her last will before she went for 6 weeks in Germany. Late summer 1958 it was obvious she was dying and she passed away on 2nd October 1958 at home. She was days away from her 79th birthday.

This woman had achieved something for women especially poor women in fear of lots of pregnancies. She lived each day fully, studying, writing campaigning, writing. She even did much for women in academia with her degrees in science and her hard work. She was an extrdinary woman who attracted attention from may prominate people of her time from Geaorge Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, and Bosie, Oscar Wildes lover.

Noel Coward actually wrote a ditty to her when they met on a cruise:

If through a mist of awful fears

Your mind in anguish gropes

Dry up your panic- stricken tears

And fly to Marie Stopes


And if perhaps you fail all round

And lie among your shattered hopes

Just raise your body from the ground

And crawl to Marie Stopes


If you missed life’s shining goal

And mixed with sex perverts and Dopes

For normal soap to cleanse your soul

Apply to Marie Stopes  

In many ways she was the stuff that made us British; she was stoic, ballsey, single minded, determined and unforgiving. She was ambitious and worked hard for all her achievements often sacrificing unintentionally her personal relationships. She should be also remembered as the woman her sent Married Love to the our Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh!

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One Response to Dr Marie Stopes; A Truly Remarkable Woman

  1. Pingback: The Insitute of Sexology at the Wellcome Collection | Laura Brennan, A Historian

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