The Birth of the Birth Control Clinic

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By | Events and Visits

As part of IHR@90, a celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the foundation of the Institute of Historical Research, a conference was held last Friday at Senate House on ‘The Birth of the Birth Control Clinic’ (jointly organised with the University of Exeter), since it is also 90 years since Marie Stopes established the first birth control clinic in the UK, in Holloway – it subsequently moved to Whitfield Street in Fitzrovia, illustrated here.

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.

This conference could hardly have taken place without the wealth of archival resources on birth control and allied matters held in the Wellcome Library providing a solid basis for research in this area.

It was a full day of fascinating papers and vigorous discussion, kicking off with Lesley Hall’s paper ‘Situating Stopes, or putting Marie in her proper place’. While suggesting that ideologically Stopes’s views were less pernicious than they have sometimes been depicted and that her involvement with contemporary ideas about eugenics was complex, it was also suggested that her difficult personality created many problems in her relationship with the birth control movement as a whole. This was perhaps prefigured by her secession from the Malthusian League to form her own Society for Constructive Birth Control in 1921.

Unfortunately one of the speakers for the first panel session on ‘Contexts’, Sarah Hodges, was unable to attend and we were thus deprived of an insight into the impact of birth control ideas in India, ‘Married Love among Madras’s Neo-Malthusians’. However, Stephen Brooke demonstrated the significant impact more generally on gender issues in Labour politics of the introduction of birth control into the political sphere through the activities of Dora Russell and others in the Workers’ Birth Control Group. Another facet to issues around birth was revealed in Anne Bergin’s paper on the professionalisation of midwifery in nineteenth century Ireland, ‘From the Wop to the Bed: the modernisation of midwifery from handy woman to the professional midwife in Ireland, c.1800-1900’ (the ‘wop’ or ‘sop’ was the bed of straw upon which Irish women traditionally gave birth).

After lunch we had an insight into continuing work on reproductive health and contraception on a global scale from Victoria Elliott of Marie Stopes International. While this organisation is not a direct descendant of Stopes’s original Mothers’ Clinics, its headquarters are in the Whitfield Street building to which her London clinic moved in 1925, and its logo is its doorway.

Stopes’ own global, or rather, Imperial, concerns and ambitions were illuminated in Susanne Klausen’s discussion of Stopes’s interaction with the birth control movement in South Africa, ‘I ought to have a clinic in every country in the world’: Marie Stopes, imperial feminism and the South African birth-control movement, 1930-1945’.

In a further panel session ‘After Stopes’, Lara Marks gave a nuanced account of the multiple elements leading to the development of the contraceptive pill and the diverse nature of its impact, in ‘Panacea or Poisoned Chalice? A History of the Contraceptive Pill’ (and it is gratifying to hear that her major work Sexual Chemistry on this subject is now out in a new edition). Tania McIntosh paid attention to significant local differences in family size based on the nature of local economies in ‘Methods and beliefs: family planning in Sheffield and Nottingham, 1925-35’, as well as demonstrating the extent to which traditional cultures of abortion flourished. Amanda Raphael in ‘Birth by the book: Grantly Dick Read and the beginnings of the “natural childbirth” movement in England’, suggested that in spite of Dick Read’s appeal to ideals of the natural, his views only really gained purchase in a context inflected by the idea of family planning in which childbirth was no longer an inevitable ordeal over which the woman had no control. (Dick Read’s papers are also held in the Wellcome Library.)

Finally, Christina Hauck addressed a perhaps less well-known facet of Stopes’s diverse career, her ambitions as a dramatist, in ‘A baby of her own: maternal desire and English polity in the plays of Marie Stopes’. Hauck suggested that, even when not directly based on Stopes’s personal experience, as with Vectia, which rested very heavily on the debacle of her first marriage, the plays are autobiographically revealing of Stopes’s ideas about herself and the tensions between her public and private personae. Although the work of birth control propaganda Our Ostriches was produced at the Royal Court Theatre, and Stopes did have other plays staged, works such as Vectia and the unpublished The Vortex Dammed (based on Noel Coward’s first major success, The Vortex) sounded pretty much unproduceable, quite apart from the difficulties Stopes experienced with the theatrical censorship system.

This was a very full day and there was enthusiastic commentary and questioning on all papers.

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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