NL 2008/10

"Woman is not essentially capricious"

50 years after Marie Stopes' death

"Such people, while awake to the claims of the unborn, nay, even of the unconceived, are blind to the claims of the one who should be dearest of all to the husband, and for whose health and happiness he is responsible."

The preceding quotation was written by Marie Stopes (October 15, 1880 – October 2, 1958), Scottish author, female rights activist ("Suffragette"), and pioneer for family planning. A well-educated and travelled woman, Stopes earned her doctorate in Munich after studies of geology, botany and geography at London's University College. In 1904, she became the first woman to teach natural sciences at Manchester University.

We owe her thanks for making birth control within marriage an issue, for her work to better understand female needs, to provoke consideration of woman's nature, and to educate on the physiological differences between the genders. In pursuit of these topics she published two books in 1918: 'Married Love' and 'Wise Parenthood', which were translated into 13 different languages.

Stopes said both women and men have to learn that: "Woman is not essentially capricious; some of the laws of her being might have been discovered long ago had the existence of law been suspected. But it has suited the general structure of society much better for men to shrug their shoulders and smile at women as irrational and capricious creatures, to be courted when it suited them, not to be studied."

She continued: "We have studied the wave-lengths of water, of sound, of light; but when will the sons and daughters of men study the sex-tide in woman and learn the laws of her Periodicity of Recurrence of desire?"

We, the enlightened products of the late 20th century, can barely understand the importance of Stopes' crusade for understanding the female soul. But her times' ideas of contraception must have been disastrous – for men and even more so for women: "It often happens nowadays that, dreading the expense and the physical strain of child-bearing for his wife, the husband practises what is called coitus interruptus - that is, he withdraws just before the ejaculation, but when he is already so stimulated that the ejaculation has become involuntary.... This practice, while it may have saved the woman the anguish of bearing unwanted children, is yet very harmful to her, and is to be deprecated. It tends to leave the woman in "midair" as it were; to leave her stimulated and unsatisfied, and therefore it has a very bad effect on her nerves and general health, particularly if it is done frequently."

Stopes started publishing the magazine "Birth Control News" as a means of sexual education. But neither the Church of England nor the Catholic Church approved of her efforts. In 1922, she even sued Dr. Halliday Sutherland for libel – and lost the lawsuit. He had put down her popularisation of contraception methods by calling them "a deformed crime".

Stopes gave lectures, published books and articles, and examined new concepts that were brought to her, for example a "Pin or stud-like apparatus* supposed to close the male urethra to secure against unpremeditated ejaculation which might take place before coitus interruptus was accomplished." She totally opposed this invention: "It appeared to me wholly dangerous and absurd, but it may have got into use by some ignorant people. I know of no argument against its total condemnation."

In 1921, Stopes opened the first British Centre for Birth control in London, financially supported by her husband. This centre was the prototype of similar institutions in other countries.

Stopes came to be criticised quite often because of her position on eugenics. She advocated the sterilisation of people with hereditary diseases. Since we know the consequences of such positions only too well, it is difficult in hindsight to understand and evaluate her motives and considerations.

Come and learn about Marie Carmichael Stopes and more pioneers of family planning in Vienna's Museum of Contraception and Abortion. Wednesday through Sunday 14 -18 h. Mariahilfer Guertel 37, A-1150 Wien (Austria)

*The pin or stud-like apparatus supposed to close the male urethra is on display in the Museum.