Happy birth [control] day, Marie!

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By | From the Collections

One of the first collections acquired by the former Contemporary Medical Archives Centre (now subsumed into Archives and Manuscripts) was a mass of papers of Marie Stopes (1882-1958) which had been rejected by the British Museum Reading Room to which she had left her personal archive, and returned by them to her son, Harry Stopes-Roe, who eventually presented it to us. Over the years this has been one of the most popular and heavily-used collection in the archives.

Letter to Marie Stopes  Wellcome Images No.L0034027.

Letter to Marie Stopes. Wellcome Images no. L0034027.

The bulk of these papers consisted of thousands of letters to Stopes from members of the general public. Many of them wrote in passionate gratitude for the advice given in her pioneering marriage manual, Married Love, published in the last months of the Great War and becoming an immediate best-seller, even though the publisher had been so dubious of its success that they had asked Stopes for a contribution towards publication costs. Others were written by those who had come across Stopes’s name through the press or word of mouth as someone who could help them with the prevention of pregnancy or their anxieties about sexual matters. In numerous instances a carbon copy of Stopes’s response or at least of a personalised PS to a form letter also survives.

This forms a unique source for attitudes to and beliefs about sexuality and reproduction and other matters to do with health during a period when social attitudes more generally were in flux but ignorance remained widespread, and has been drawn on by many historians.

Although Stopes herself was not a medical doctor – she was entitled to style herself ‘Dr’ because she held a PhD in palaeobotany, the study of fossil plants – she had made herself more knowledgeable about sexual functioning and about the practicalities of contraception than the vast majority of the medical profession. Up until very recently such matters were not routinely incorporated into the medical curriculum and doctors who wished to inform themselves were obliged to seek training at Stopes’s clinics or those established by the other organisations which eventually amalgamated to become the National Birth Control Association, later the Family Planning Association.

Constructive Birth Control leaflet: 'Chimes of the Times'. Wellcome Images no. L0022781.

Constructive Birth Control leaflet: ‘Chimes of the Times’. Wellcome Images no. L0022781.

Stopes remains a fascinating and controversial figure of many contradictions. Like so many of her contemporaries, she had a considerable sympathy with the eugenics movement, although in her case, she believed that much of the problem of the ‘C3’ [unfit for active military service] population could readily be dealt with by enabling women to space their pregnancies and limit their families. This would lead both to healthier offspring and women themselves with more energy for active motherhood.

A second generation feminist (her mother Charlotte Carmichael Stopes had been an earlier campaigner for female higher education, wrote several important feminist texts, and was a militant suffragette), Marie Stopes’s work was profoundly inflected by these beliefs and her desire to empower women. However, in spite of this ideological commitment, she does not come over as entirely ‘sisterly’ in her relations with other women: she clearly found it impossible to work with other birth control campaigners as her equals rather than as her disciples, leading to her schism with the NBCA in the early 1930s.

Besides the copious correspondence from the public, the Stopes papers here at the Wellcome include a little general correspondence pertaining to birth control, a certain amount of material about the Mothers’ Clinics she set up and the Society for Constructive Birth Control that she founded, meetings she held and lectures she gave, her relations with the press and media, and some legal papers, including transcripts of the proceedings in her high profile libel case against the Roman Catholic medic Dr Halliday Sutherland. There is also a little Stopes material among the archives of the Eugenics Society, to which she bequeathed her clinics.

Some of the extensive secondary literature on Stopes and her career is held in the Wellcome Library. Other archival collections on birth control include material reflecting her often fraught relationship with other individuals and organisations in the movement.

Facade of the mothers clinic for constructive birth control. Wellcome Images No. L0018436.

Facade of the mothers clinic for constructive birth control. Wellcome Images no. L0018436.

Stopes’s first clinic was located in Upper Holloway (near Archway), but it soon moved to a more central location in Whitfield Street, a short walk from the Wellcome Library. This building is now the headquarters of the reproductive health charity, Marie Stopes International.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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