Don’t admit weakness to Marie Stopes: Eugenicist, not Feminist

Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes

I have spent many happy hours researching my book Shell Shocked Britain, and have learned many things that turned my long-held beliefs about the war and inter-war period on their head. Not only has this made BBC Drama The Crimson Field impossible to watch without the desire to throw things at the screen and shout ‘it wasn’t like that!’, but it has required me to reassess my views about certain important 20th century historical figures, some of whom I had previously thought admirable.

The greatest surprise came during my work on post war attitudes to those men who came back from the war with psychiatric, rather than physical, wounds. Eugenics, and the discussions about the impact of the war on the ‘breeding’ of the next generation, threw up incidents in the life of Marie Stopes that have changed my views on the woman I had previously thought of as one of the great pioneers for women’s rights in the 20th century.

I was recommended to read a book called Dear Dr Stopes, edited 170px-Married_Love_Coverby Ruth Hall. It is a collection of letters to, and from, Stopes during the 1920s, when many of the questions referred to her from readers of her book Married Love, published in 1918. It is a fascinating look at attitudes to sex and contraception that is by turns quaint, funny and deeply disturbing.

After the war ended and it was clear that many men had returned from the Front traumatised by their experiences, there was a concern expressed – quite openly in high office – that the British Empire would be placed at risked should the ‘C3’ population be allowed to procreate at a reckless rate. What was described for the first time as the ‘A1’ class of man (the officer class) has been disproportionately devastated by the conflict so what could be done, at a time when contraceptive advice was not to be widely available for another decade?  Stopes was one of a number of intellectuals of the period to support a eugenicist view of the future – Havelock Ellis, John Maynard Keynes, Cyril Burt and George Bernard Shaw were expounding similar views, and army psychiatrists readily discussed the possible, negative, impact of allowing many of the traumatised men in their care to reproduce.

But it was Marie Stopes, as a pioneer of birth control, who adopted a high profile campaign. She supported compulsory sterilisation of parents who were “totally unfit for parenthood” and in 1921 she advocated “Joyful and Deliberate Motherhood, A Safe Light in our Racial Darkness.” and criticized a society that “allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped and inferior infants”.

Just before the 1922 general election,  Stopes circulated a questionnaire to every parliamentary candidate to be returned to ‘The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress’, which she founded. The statement candidates were required to sign up to said:

I agree that the present position of breeding chiefly from the C3 populations and burdening and discouraging the A1 is nationally deplorable, and if I am elected to Parliament I will press the Ministry of Health to give such scientific information through the Ante-natal clinics, Welfare centres and other institutions in its control as will curtail the C3 and increase the A1.

Ruth Hall offers some of the replies she received, including those that took issue with the implications of her proposal: any institution is going to tell millions of people that they must not breed, or how you are going to get physical or mental deficients, who are sometimes returned to Parliament, to vote for the extinction of their rights, and to reflect on their parents by passing an Act of Parliament I do not know…’

What is striking in many of the replies – positive and negative – is the acceptance of the term ‘deficients’, amongst whom were included many of the men who had but recently been fighting for their country. Such language had been included in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 and an awareness of the importance of terminology would be many years coming.

eugenicsMarie Stopes was a woman who fought to get birth control on the political agenda, and wanted it available to women of all classes. She was always happy to answer questions, very warmly, from any woman who wrote to her. But why she was so forceful in her argument is not as altruistic as I had previously thought. She even disapproved of her only son’s choice of partner and tried to dissuade him from marrying her on the basis of her short-sightedness. When her son refused to bow to her pressure, she cut him from her will. She wanted a world where only the physical and mentally perfect survived and at the end of my researches I was not surprised to learn that she had sent a book of poetry to Hitler, and wrote anti-Semititic poems, including the lines “Catholics, Prussians, the Jews and the Russians, all are a curse, or something worse.”

Shell Shocked Britain looks at the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health. With leading figures of the day regularly making eugenicist arguments in the national press, and army psychiatrists giving evidence to committees in terms that were eugenicist in nature, why would anyone feel confident that a plea for support at a time of fragility would be met with a positive response?

This entry was posted in Book, Books, First World War, History, Mental health, Parenting, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Don’t admit weakness to Marie Stopes: Eugenicist, not Feminist

  1. Viv says:

    I think that this aspect may be among the deeply rooted stigma for mental health: the fear that we will not be found fit to live…

  2. Stephen Bigger says:

    Marie’s Stopes’ son Harry Stopes-Roe tells the story of how his mother condemned him for marrying a disabled woman and thus passing her disability on to their children. Her disability – she wore glasses. Stephen

    • keatsbabe says:

      I mention that in the book Stephen – I was so shocked to learn that her zeal for birth control had less to do with emancipation and more to do with social engineering and racial purity, and that she took her beliefs to the heart of her family. Many doctors were concerned about the impact of war on the population of Britain, but as soon as they saw Hitler’s intentions recanted and withdrew their enthusiasm for eugenics. Not Stopes, which makes her more disturbing and frankly, sinister. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Ian Stevenson says:

    Sir Cyril Burt was the expert on IQ tests which were part of the 11+ to select a suitable education for children-grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns. It wasn’t part of the 1944 Education Act but the tri-partite system was used by most English counties ( a few Local Authorities still do e.g Kent) When I went to college in the mid sixties we were told intelligence was 80% inherited and this had been proven by studies of twins rared part. It was later found-I think 1980s that Burt had fudged his figures to suit his theory. It is now thought IQ tests only give a snapshot of present reasoning power. Howard Gardener, the American psychologist, came up with the idea of different intelligences i.e. artistic, inter personal or intra personal -although Spearman said something similar 50 years ago.
    BTW Marie Stopes married A V Roe. He owned AVRO the aircraft company which built the Lancaster bomber. Just thought I’d slip that one in!

    • Burt was found guilty of literally manufacturing evidence – his arguments had no empirical basis. There are still useful twin studies today where twins are brought up separately (e.g. through adoption. The balance of genetics to environment is a delicate one, not an either – or relationship. Howard Gardener was doing no more than saying that intelligence was broader than IQ tests. No empirical basis either, just a persuasive discussion.

      • Ian Stevenson says:

        the empirical evidence may depend on the paradigm of the commentator. Gardener’s concept is a useful one in the everyday world

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