BOOK REVIEW / A mother of invention: Marie Stopes and the sexual revolution - June Rose: Faber, pounds 14.99

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WE expect a lot from our heroines. Nobody questions if the buildings Edison hoped to electrify were used for worthy causes; no one is surprised if male social reformers turn out to have the politics of Brooks's and the morals of the gutter. But in the women's movement we tend to assume that good deeds are done by good people, and for good reasons. In the case of Marie Stopes, pioneer of birth-control and prophet of 20th-century attitudes towards female sexuality, there is shock and horror when it is revealed - as it is, eloquently, in June Rose's able biography - that Stopes was arrogant, snobbish, cruel, racist, an emotional tyrant and a monster egotist. Worse: her crusade for birth-control became confused with an interest in eugenics and racial purity.

So what? Or rather, why should we be surprised? Stopes needed the will of a pile-driver (and all its subtlety) to defy the weight of convention and do her work. Born Marie Carmichael Stopes (she married twice, but never changed her name), she was a second-generation New Woman. Her mother Charlotte, a woman of daunting rectitude and scholarship, was distant with her two daughters, preferring to follow her academic interests; only Marie's mild and loving father, Henry, a passionate amateur palaeontologist, gave her warmth and support - and implanted her early interest in science.

Something - competition with her high-achieving mother? - made Marie fanatically ambitious. She set herself to storm the bastions of the male scientific establishment, gaining an honours degree in one year, a doctorate soon after. As an eminent botanist she travelled to Japan (where she spent 18 months) and Canada (where she married one Reginald Ruggles Gates), and lectured extensively. She applied to accompany Captain Scott on his second Antarctic expedition, and was outraged to be ruled out solely on grounds of sex.

She was, in fact, a paragon of pioneering achievement even before she began the work that made her famous. But love and sex were a great problem for Marie. Her prolific writings - plays, novels, stories and, as her biographer succinctly puts it, 'unfortunately' also poems - reveal a gushy romantic dreamer within the uncompromising scientist. She was vaguely bisexual, entering into passionate if non-physical relationships with women, and her miserable first marriage was ended on the grounds of non-consummation. But her interest in her own, considerable, sexuality (the unfortunate Ruggles Gates described her as 'super-sexed to a degree which was almost pathological', but then he would, wouldn't he?) was a subject where the scientist and the romantic in her could meet. Camping alone on a windswept beach after her divorce, she kept a 'Tabulation of Symptoms of Sexual Excitement in Solitude', complete with charts and notes.

It was in 1918 that her ground-breaking Married Love was published - printed by a small press with a handsome private subsidy from the dashing RAF officer Humphrey Roe, who became her second husband. Fame and fortune, and plenty of trouble, came soon after. Marie founded the free birth control clinics that still carry her name and, at 44, she finally became a mother. Until the end of a long life (she died in 1958), she never let up on her goals. June Hall gives a picture of a woman of extraordinary and enduring achievement: it would be ridiculous to want her to be nice as well.