Marie Stopes, intellectual, birth control pioneer, and author, was born in Edinburgh in 1880. Her mother Charlotte Carmichael, daughter of artist J.F. Carmichael, was the first woman in Scotland to obtain a university certificate. As a student Charlotte was not allowed to attend lectures, and though she took the same exams as the male students, as a woman she was awarded a certificate rather than a degree. Charlotte imbued her daughter with a strong feminist spirit. Marie's father Henry Stopes was a scientist.
As a girl Stopes astutely forecast that she would spend the first 20 years of her life in science, the second 20 in social projects, and the final 20 years writing poetry. At 18 she won a science scholarship at University College London. In 1902 she earned a double first class honours degree in botany and geology. She continued her studies at the Botanical Institute in Munich and in 1904 was awarded a doctorate for her paleo-botanical studies of fossilized plants, the first such degree awarded to a woman from that institution. Over the next decade Stopes published many scientific works, as well as book on plants for young children and one for adults called Ancient Plants. She also wrote poetry and novels, and in A Journal from Japan gave a fictionalized account of her frustrated love for a Japanese botanist.
In 1911 after a whirlwind romance Stopes married fellow scientist Reginald Ruggles Gates, but the marriage quickly soured. Struggling to name the problem, Stopes studied medical books in the British Library and came to realize that her husband was impotent and that she was still a virgin. In 1904, because she did not believe in divorce, she had her marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. No doubt wishing to spare other women this humiliating experience, she wrote a sex manual called Married Love. But publishers didn't want to touch the book, particularly as it claimed that women should enjoy sex as much as men, and it did not see print for some years.
In 1915 Stopes met American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, who was in temporary exile from the US. Sanger's newspaper had printed advice about birth control and she had been charged with publishing an "obscene and lewd article"; she fled to Britain. Stopes became converted to Sanger's cause, and set to work on a book called Wise Parenthood, another work she had trouble publishing.
In 1918 Stopes married Humphrey Roe, a Manchester manufacturing magnate who had seen his female workforce suffer from frequent childbearing and who had already tried - without success - to establish a family planning clinic for his workers. He supported Stopes' work and paid for her books to be published. Although the books were a huge hit with the public - Married Love sold 2000 copies within a fortnight - they were condemned as immoral and obscene by the Church of England and the medical establishment. Stopes became famous and notorious overnight, and she seems to have loved the limelight, welcoming every opportunity to further her crusade.
In 1921 Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and opened the first British birth control centre, the Mother's Clinic, in London. The clinic, staffed by female nurses and doctors, offered free service to married women. The clinic dispensed rubber cervical caps designed by Stopes, who was opposed to chemical contraception, famously saying: "Never put anything in your vagina that you would not put in your mouth!" In 1925 the clinic moved to 108 Whitfield Street, where it remains to this day. Stopes opened other clinics in Britain in the 1920s.
In 1924 she had a son Harry, but continued on her busy schedule promoting contraception. At fashionable dinner parties she is said to have pulled a cervical cap out of her purse and passed it around. By 1930 other contraceptive advocacy organizations had appeared, and they joined forces to form the National Birth Control Council, later the Family Planning Association, but Stopes disagreed with how it should be run, and resigned in 1933. She started an international campaign for birth control, publishing articles in Indian newspapers and affiliating with clinics in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Today Marie Stopes International (www.mariestopes.org.uk) has offices in Albania, Angola, Australia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Haiti, Honduras, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, United Kingdom, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
Despite her fulfilling public life, her private life was not always happy. Her husband eventually suggested that she take a lover, and they drew up a written contract to that effect. Thus in later life she courted a succession of younger men with her husband's consent. And yes, she spent the last 20 years of her life writing acclaimed poetry. Marie Stopes died in 1958.