Marie Stopes was born in 1880 and was an author, scientist and campaigner for women’s rights.
Her links to English PEN may not be obvious but she became a member when leading British newspapers refused to run adverts for her books on sex and contraception because they thought that they were immoral.
Stopes became a key PEN case during these years, as PEN Secretary Hermon Ould offered help and advice whilst she fought censorship as she campaigned for women’s rights.
Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in Britain in but it was her sex manual Married Love (1918) which caused huge controversy in the press and beyond.
The book and the controversy around it brought birth control into the public discourse and proved groundbreaking in terms of women’s rights, sex education and access to family planning in the UK.
She went on to write a number of publications on birth control and sexual fulfilment for women and men including Sex and the Young (1926), Enduring Passion (1928) and Change of Life in Men and Women (1936). She also wrote poetry.
Stopes attended the 1941 PEN Congress, speaking about literature and life after the war but it was the organisation’s experience of running free expression campaigns that she really needed.
On 5thAugust 1947 she wrote to Ould asking for help providing documents to the Royal Commission on the Press, to raise issues of her treatment.
Addressing the Commission, Stopes argued that the restriction of her publications, which had been carried by the Times since the 1920s but had been recently omitted, was a free expression issue: ‘Considering the Freedom of the Press to be the very life blood of English Liberties, I lay the following verifiable facts before the Press Commission because I feel that they indicate that form some points of view the Freedom of the British Press is violated.’
Stopes’ activism had some more sinister undertones and was linked to eugenics and ideas of racial engineering which were gaining popularity at the time. However, in conversations with the editor, as she describes to Ould, it became clear that ‘birth control was the stumbling block’ and not racial politics, and that several of her works were regularly being banned and even burned in Ireland.
Stopes believed that she was being prevented from testifying to the Commission in person in order to impede her case.
They also refused to publish her testimony as part of making proceedings public and declared the issue concluded.
English PEN’s Executive Committee wrote to the Royal Commission in November 1949 but the Commission replied that Stopes’ committed her evidence too late and that, while it would be considered, she would not be asked to attend in person. They regarded the matter as concluded.
In January 1950 after many years of campaigning, the English PEN Executive Committee answered Stopes letter but only to say that they considered‘that such editors are within their rights, however prejudiced their decisions might be. They added that the President (Desmond MacCarthy) was anxious to convey his sense of the social importance of your work.’
The banning of these advertisements, they conclude, is a commercial decision, rather than a free expression issue.
Stopes disagreed responding ‘the PEN is eager to help the oppressed in other countries, why do they do nothing for me?”
Nonetheless the Stopes organisation was hugely successful in opening clinics offering birth control and contraceptive advice all over the world throughout the twentieth century. This work continues to this day. However, the legacy of Stopes’ racism and eugenicism has tarnished and undermined its legacy and it has since been renamed MSI International in an effort to distance the organisation’s good works from the deeply problematic views of its founder.