Through a Lens, DULLY

Five years into her first marriage, Marie Stopes, famous British birth control pioneer and sexual reformer, was childless. It was not due to infertility or any sure-fire-fail-safe birth control method. At the age of 36, she was still a virgin. In fact, since 1916 this youngest Doctor of Science in England knew nothing at all about sex.

She had spent most of her adult life researching the reproductive aspects of plant life. But at the end of her career, she had written seven scientific monographs about paleobotany and discovered the intricate structure of coal. But she had never made any attempt to apply her knowledge to the field of human behavior.

Deploring her own sexual deprivation and suspecting her spouse was impotent, she went to the British Museum and studied every book on sex in English, French and German. It was an instructive several weeks. Armed with all the information she could find, Stopes brought suit against her husband and in a bitter legal battle, had her ambiguous marriage annulled. The lifelong justification for her campaign for sexual reform was the experience of this unfortunate marriage.

In an unhappy and miserable childhood she showed no promise of unusual capacity. Her reaction to her upbringing was a positive aggressiveness to every challenge and adversity. Stopes’ ego, vanity and belief that she was directly inspired from heaven, drove her onward. She showed a lifelong, relentless ferocity toward her enemies. She moved with the Momentum of a maddened elephant, crashing through the underbrush of the Victorian age, raising lots of dust, making lots of noise and enemies, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape.

The publication in March 1918 of her ode to sexual satisfaction, Married Love, “ crashed into English society like a bombshell,” she wrote later. Her 116-page book was a brisk best-seller in 1935, academics rated her book the 16th most influential in the world, behind Das Kapital, but ahead of Relativity, The Interpretation of Dreams and Mein Kampf.

Marie Stopes, above all others brought to women the right to be mistresses, and not slaves, of their own fertility, and to children the right of coming as invited guests, and not as gate-crashers, to the banquet of life.” Ruth Hall’ s biography is an excellent one, filled with astonishment and admiration for her subject, yet critical and balanced. The sheer bulk of Marie Stopes’ memorabilia in the British Museum weighed in at three tons, a mass of material that took museum staff 18 years to catalogue. Hall has carefully edited and selected from this amazing testimony to Stopes’ energy and presents the reader with a fascinating account of a forgotten woman.

Published in Equal Times