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From the NS archive: The missionary of sex

9 September 1977: Marie Stopes’s regressive argument for birth control.

By Germaine Greer

In this piece Germaine Greer reviews Ruth Hall’s biography of Marie Stopes, the women’s rights campaigner who founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. Stopes was also a supporter of eugenics, and it is because of this problematic history that the contraception and abortion services organisation Mare Stopes International changed its name to MSI Reproductive Choices in 2020. In her biography, Hall makes clear her dislike of Stopes. Greer observes the author’s disgust of Stopes’s ambition, which she jokes is “unbecoming in a woman”. Stopes’s reasons for campaigning for birth control were complicated. Birth control could free women from the inevitability of childbirth, but it could also be used to prevent “undesirable” people from reproducing, and the state having to support their children. This is a morally abhorrent ideology yet, Greer acknowledged, it makes economic sense. Anyhow, she wrote, Now that all children are matters of some public expense, the birth of all children involves the state as putative supporter.”

Even before broaching the text of Ruth Hall’s biography of Marie Stopes, the reader is made aware of Mrs Hall’s dislike of her subject; for the first of her four epigraphs is a scribbled note by Marie Stopes in the margin of a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet: “I will be canonised in 200 years time.” The last words in the book are a question once asked in the New Statesman:

“Will posterity consider her as many consider Joan of Arc, a self-deluded maniac, or will Marie Stopes find a place in the Calendar of Saints”? Saints are not necessarily agreeable people, especially to those who profess another religion. Some saints have been verily tiresome; though few can have been as relentlessly tiresome as the woman whose papers had to be transported to the British Museum in a three ton lorry.

At first it seems that Mrs Hall is stacking the cards against Marie Stopes. To guy her subject’s mother, she resorts to a fairly cheap journalistic device:

“How can men become truly free that ignore, for others, the liberties founded on the same reasonings by which they enfranchised themselves,” raged Mrs Stopes in 1894.

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Mrs Hall might have written, in place of “raged”, murmured, droned, muttered or, chaining herself to fact, simply wrote. At her hands the Stopeses are doomed to appear as unpleasant and ridiculous as any bra-burners; as does, indeed, the hapless palaeobotanist in her dust-jacket photo. When we learn that while in Munich, Marie Stopes “invariably attended fancy-dress balls as a Valkyrie in armour she made herself out of cardboard and silver paint”, laying down her cardboard and paint-brush only long enough to bludgeon her way into the laboratories, while making ferocious assaults upon the German language – and, incidentally, making an important original contribution to the study of fossil plants – one begins to feel sorry for her. Were Ruth Hall to mark iniquities, one feels, no one should stand it.

Marie Stopes’s besetting sin, and all thing unbecoming in a woman, is ambition. So repelled is Mrs Hall by her subject’s ambition, that although she dutifully records her industry and energy, and is quick to correct those who thought that Marie Stopes achieved nothing significant in her life, the image that she weaves out of the tons of material that Stopes was unwise enough to leave behind is of a woman obtuse, cruel and silly, beyond anything that might be expected of an escapee from an oppressed class. In sifting the voluminous documentation Mrs Hall was in the same position as a spy sifting thousands of hours of wiretapping to accumulate five minutes of subversive utterance. It is typical of Marie Stopes’s kind of delusion that she supplied the materials for her own slaughter.

Mrs Hall’s indignation is aroused on behalf of all those people who loved Marie Stopes and were rolled over by the juggernaut of her self-absorption; but while the reader must blush for her undeniable dreadfulness, the equally undeniable fact of the continued devotion of people like Aylmer Maude and Marie Stopes’s husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe, is, by Mrs Hall’s token, incomprehensible. Marie Stopes did not, evidently, subdue by pussy-power, for she was dumped by her Japanese professor fiancé, left virgin by her first husband until she was 38 and thereafter troubled by the sexual inadequacy of her second husband; and in all three instances Mrs Hall triumphs over her. Although the poor woman did have enough charm to keep George Bernard Shaw answering her letters, not a vestige of it illumines Mrs Hall’s pages.

Ruth Hall’s repugnance is, if not altogether justified, comprehensible. The clue to her fear and loathing is to be found in Marie Stopes’s “central belief – that the human race could be improved by the eugenic application of birth control.” Mrs Hall, citing the circumstances in which Sir Keith Joseph, who suffers from the same combination of cleverness and obtuseness as Marie Stopes, lost his chance of leadership of the Tory party, states her belief that such views are now shunned.

“Try as he afterwards might to shift the emphasis of what he had said from genetic to environmental considerations, his few sentences had cost him his chance of becoming party leader. The paradox was that the birth control movement, the greatest liberalising force of the twentieth century, and Marie Stopes, its arch-prophet, had each fed off a philosophical base that by the Seventies was regarded as too ‘illiberal’ to be hinted at even by a right-wing Conservative.”

Mrs Hall assumes that the birth-control movement was the “greatest liberalising force” in the 20th century because she assumes that heterosexual intravaginal intercourse is right, proper, and better for you than any other sort, that birth-control was unknown before the manufacture of rubber goods, and that most babies, especially poor people’s babies, are unwanted. Marie Stopes’s prejudice against coitus interruptus, although every bit as unfairly stigmatised as masturbation, is also apparently swallowed by Mrs Hall. Although she sees that Marie Stopes’s insistence upon heterosexual monogamy and certain “normal” forms of intercourse was puritanical, she does not see that the present emphasis upon contraception has led to an historically unprecedented situation, of which Stopes’s own sufferings provided the paradigm. As a result of the wide acceptance of views she championed, more intravaginal intercourse is practised than ever before, even though fewer children are desired and even though it is known most intravaginal intercourse is not the most efficient or the tenderest, let alone the only, way to spread pleasure.

What institutional birth control has ushered in is not liberalism but simply the universal continual accessibility of the vagina, which might turn out in the long run to be an enslaving influence. Its effects are neatly prefigured in Marie Stopes’s own dreary, incessant, affected, girlish sex-in-the-head.

Although any national politician unwise enough to enunciate a belief in eugenics may excite the uproar that greeted Sir Keith Joseph, the motivation behind the increased availability of the means of controlling birth has more to do with his views than with any muddle-headed notion of freeing people to have a good time. The Stopesian aim was fewer and better children: better nourished, better behaved, and cleverer. Regardless of whether the poor liked their smaller, naughtier, less articulate, dirtier and sicker children better than she ever liked anybody, she thought that they had no right to feel that way, not only because their feeling caused expense and disruption to the body politic, but also for aesthetic reasons.

The economics of her argument as expressed to the Royal Association for the Deaf and Dumb are still unanswerable: “Do you think it advisable,” she asked, “that two defectives, both brought up at the public expense, should be permitted to produce four defectives to be brought up at the public expense, and where is this geometrical progression to stop?” When health and education are both a matter of public expense, the power of this argument is increased. If journalists do not think in these terms, many doctors and scientists do. Now that all children are matters of some public expense, the birth of all children involves the state as putative supporter. Many people who would find Marie Stopes’s views fascist nevertheless believe that the state is entitled to withdraw benefits in cases where individuals are over-reproducing in a manner considered undesirable. While English courts may fight for the right of a “defective” girl to choose her own reproductive destiny, English representatives did not castigate the United States when it linked offers of food aid to acceptance of euphemistically named “family planning” programmes. In all its years of operating birth control clinics, the Ford Foundation only once ran a fertility clinic, and couples from all parts of India walked for weeks to get to it.

In advocating the withdrawal of reproductive rights from certain groups, Marie Stopes was simply carrying her ideas to their logical extension. Her lack of humanity was appalling in an individual: it is normal and unavoidable in the character of institutions.

Ruth Hall’s biography of Marie Stopes is necessary reading for anyone concerned with the politics of fertility, for in the aberrations of a well-trained scientific mind dealing with human reproduction, many of the potential moral and cultural catastrophes are spelt out. When the family planning workers of the Sixties swept into Indian villages, inserting record numbers of IUDs in the bodies of agricultural labouring women whose poor diet could not supplement the increased blood loss, whose tense abdominal musculature painfully rejected the Western gadgetry, who were segregated whenever they bled, and swept on without leaving adequate follow-up arrangements, they were acting in the likeness of Marie Stopes. While we snigger at Marie Stopes’s religion, with the orgasms which she sought in vain enshrined as its supreme mystical experience, we ought also to realise that it is a religion that we have spread by the speculum, enforcing sterility upon unbelievers as once missionaries poured baptismal water.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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