#100PENMembers No.58: Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes was born in 1880 and was an author, scientist and campaigner for women’s rights.

Marie Stopes (Photo: Marie Stopes International, Australia)

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’ books as advertised in the PEN News publication

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.

#100PENMembers No. 45: Isabel Allende

This International Women’s Day we celebrate Isabel Allende, feminist, free expression advocate and PEN Member, as well as a trailblazing and truly international author.

Photo Credit: Hester Lacey/FT

Born in Lima, Peru, Allende spent time in Santiago and Lebanon as a child. Her books have been published in 35 languages and sold 67 million copies.

Her life as a writer started at Paula Magazine, the first Chilean feminist publication which she ran with a group of four other female journalists.

The job gave me a focus and a voice. It also gave me a language to express my anger, and for the first time, I felt like my anger served a purpose.

‘It was the first time that issues like abortion, infidelity, prostitution, and domestic violence were written about in Chile. These things were not even touched on before—at least not in public. It shook society.’ Allende continues to be an outspoken feminist campaigner in the US and on issues affecting women, particularly migrant women, across South and Central America.

Following the 1973 coup in Chile, in which her cousin – former President Salvador Allende – was assassinated, she fled the country and lived for 13 years as a political refugee in Venezuela. 

These years of exile and hardship had a huge influence on Allende’s writing and on her activism. Speaking at the US National Book Awards in 2018: ‘I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred. Because we realize that the similarities that bring us together are many more than the differences that separate us.’

In fact, just as her writing represents, perhaps, an attempt to reconcile these feelings of displacement and not-belonging from her time as a refugee, so too her work with PEN represents these concerns.

A vocal supporter of PEN’s 2017 Make Space campaign – which marks the latest stage in the organisation’s century of work with refugees and the displaced –  Allende commented that, It’s very easy to create a sense of hatred when you talk numbers, but when you see the faces of people, when you look at them in the eye one by one, then the whole thing changes, and that’s what art and literature can do.’

For her, literature and organisations like PEN can create this sense of belonging, of shared humanity and of understanding. 

In recognition of both the international reach of her work and of her outspoken campaigning for refugees and migrants but also for women, in 2016 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN Centre USA (West) for her feminism, her commitment to social justice and her take on the 1973 military coup in Chile. Previous recipients have included Joan Didion, Francis Ford Coppola, Octavia Butler and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She also won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2010 and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. She said this final accolade from the US, her home for decades, made her feel at last as though she belonged there and had been accepted.

A lifelong supporter of PEN, she is a member of the PEN Writers circle: ‘writers who believe that literature and freedom of expression are at the heart of a strong vibrant society. They support PEN International’s activities to ensure that silenced unheard and unknown voices are connected to readers and writers everywhere.’

Her latest book, The Soul of a Woman ‘isn’t quite a memoir and it isn’t quite a feminist manifesto’ according to its author and came out in the UK last week but launches with a PEN America #PENOutLoud session with Concepción de León at 8pm ET today. What a perfect Mother’s Day or IWD present for a superb woman in your life!

PEN’s Women’s Manifesto

Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…

At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.

That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her


Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.

It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.

There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.

When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including  Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.

It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.

Interview with PEN International President

In this fascinating new interview, hear novelist and Director of International PEN, Jennifer Clement share her thoughts with Peter McDonald on the current challenges facing writers.

She discusses her role in PEN Mexico and Cuban writers in exile, the success of her ‘campaign of shame’ and her desire to use the fame of celebrity writers to help further the causes of their colleagues around the world.

Of her time as President of PEN Mexico she said: ‘As I said in Turkey just now, you know you have 151 journalists in jail, I have 151 journalists in graves.

‘I mean we kill journalists in Mexico, we don’t jail them.

‘So to me I felt like it was such a critical time, so I agreed to be President [of PEN Mexico] and the decision I made was, one, that I had to get back the prestige of the Centre, re-build it, because it had gone through this bad moment, then I also wanted to bring, create, a campaign of shame, that was very clear in my mind.’


International PEN President Jennifer Clement (Photo: Barbara Sibley)

She also discusses her views on PEN’s collaboration with other organisations in their action in Turkey, revising the PEN charter and being the first female International PEN President.

Of being PEN’s first female President, she said: ‘I think the organisation felt very strongly that it was time for a woman.

‘I think because there was this sense and so they were looking around the panorama to see which woman might fit the profile.’

You can hear the full interview and read the transcript here.