Marie Stopes is the ultimate ideological yin and yang, a woman who was the perfect mix of the best and the worst of an activist. She started the first family planning clinic in the British Empire in 1921 and sent personal poems expressing her infatuation to Adolf Hitler. She campaigned for women’s right to make their own fertility choices while claiming that the poor and sickly should not be allowed to have children. She even disowned her own son and cut off all contact with him for marrying a myopic woman. Stopes realized that control of her fertility is key for a woman who wants to be able to make her own way in life, but felt a deep connection to a man who thought that an Aryan woman’s place is in the home and there should be no place at all for Roma, Polish or Jewish women.
In August 1939 the world was on the brink of World War II and Marie Stopes was busy with her clinics and politics (campaigning for eugenics and family planning), but she still found a little time to send a letter to her hero:
“Dear Herr Hitler, Love is the greatest thing in the world: so will you accept from me these (poems) that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them?” (August 1939)
Marie Stopes was the catalyst for remarkable strides with regards to family but she also thought that Hitler was a great guy except a little too lenient on whom he sterilized and whom he didn’t.
Stopes did not bend to political and religious pressure and kept doing what she thought was important: educating women on how to limit their family to a manageable size while acknowledging that “abstinence education” guarantees nothing (a notion many U.S. Republican legislators have still not comprehended). Case in point: she even wrote one of the first “sex-positive” sex manuals in modern Europe, “Married Love.” Another interesting factoid about Marie Stopes is that she had a PhD in palaeobotany. She studied coal lumps for a living before deciding that real people’s reproductive needs are more important than long-extinct organisms.
But we shouldn’t forget the reason for which even today she is such a controversial figure. Her strongly racist and classist views are not something that can, or should, be swept under a rug. Marie Stopes held very firm beliefs on who should be allowed to reproduce and who shouldn’t – an eye problem or low income were good enough reasons for her to deem someone unworthy of offspring. Literally, Hitler wasn’t as bad (although he was obviously much MUCH worse in many other respects).
At the end of the day, the women who waited for hours to be seen at her clinic did not care about her politics. What mattered to them was that she provided a way to safely stop having babies (in early 20th century London it was not uncommon for working class women to give birth to a dozen children). She did a great thing for women of that time, and it’s awesome that the positive bit of her legacy lives on. The modern organisation that bears her name, Marie Stopes International, works in over 40 countries. In 2008, there were 560 centres, including five in Bolivia, 24 in South Africa, 25 in Kenya, 48 in Pakistan, and over 100 in Bangladesh. MSI does an incredible job helping people make the reproductive choices that are best for them by providing a wide range of reproductive health services which range from education and check-ups to abortions and vasectomies.
Nevertheless, many of the original reasons that motivated her very commendable actions were very wrong. It’s hard when a hero is also a villain (or would have potentially been, if Stopes had been given more power to put her ideas into reality). However, that shouldn’t be an excuse for white-washing and historical revisionism. Just because somebody had a really good idea doesn’t mean they didn’t have a bunch of really awful ones. We can embrace the good heritage while denouncing the other shi* people did – calling somebody out when you disagree with them on doesn’t mean you’re discrediting all their actions. Other than the importance of family planning, nuance and sophistication when thinking about (and debating) other people is, in my opinion, the most important lesson Maris Stopes has to teach us.
A recovering scientist, healthcare analyst and junkie of all things gender and women's health