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Notebook: The monster and the master race: She altered women's lives for ever. But a new book reveals that Marie Stopes's motives were distinctly dubious

Cal McCrystal
Saturday 22 August 1992 23:02 BST

FOR THOSE who revere the memory of Marie Stopes, one of this century's great feminist heroines, what follows will not be comforting. For all that she achieved as Britain's foremost crusader for birth control and enlightened sex education, Dr Stopes, who died in 1958 at the age of 78, turns out to have been a bit of a monster. During the Second World War, for example, friends whom she invited to lunch, asked if they could bring along a child they were caring for - a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Dr Stopes responded: certainly not; it would offend her other guests.

This unsavoury item of correspondence is among several boxes of archives explored by June Rose for a new book on the legendary campaigner. Miss Rose has not included it in the forthcoming volume, Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, on the grounds that it was 'too distasteful'. But there are other revelations in the book which will shock those who revere Marie Stopes, just as they shocked Miss Rose, herself a hitherto unreserved admirer of the most forceful sexual revolutionary of the age.

Chatting to Miss Rose and reading an advanced copy of the work that is to be published next month, I found my own long-held admiration for Marie Stopes ebbing away. It is not just that Dr Stopes had some unpleasant private views and prejudices; it is also that one of the prime motives behind her life's work turns out to have been something rather more sinister than the liberation of women. What the author reveals about her subject will cause a great deal of controversy, possibly exposing the biographer to ridicule, perhaps even cries of betrayal. 'I am very apprehensive about the book's reception,' she said.

June Rose had scarcely begun her career when Marie Stopes was ending hers. She lives in a small flat in an exclusive Highgate estate. She does not talk easily about herself and is somewhat fearful of being known as the woman who brought Marie Stopes crashing from her pedestal. She acknowledged that her book owes much to the late Ruth Hall's 1977 biography of Marie Stopes. The highly acclaimed Hall book exposed a great many Stopes warts, concluding that posterity would probably recall Dr Stopes as both a self-deluded megalomaniac and a saint. But Miss Rose has left us with a creature who could never find a place in the saintly calendar.

As the founder of the first free birth- control clinic in Britain, Marie Stopes always insisted that her campaign should not be interpreted as stemming from a dislike of children. But the harrowing correspondence June Rose has unearthed, concerning, for example, Dr Stopes's own son Harry, appears to mock those protestations. It's not only that she forbade Harry to read any books (believing that reading encouraged second-hand opinions); her attempts to find suitable company for the child were an exercise of indescribably insensitive cruelty.

Advertising through her solicitors for a boy ('must be completely healthy, intelligent and uncircumcised') with adoption in mind, she accepted Robin, an orphan brought up by impoverished aunts. Two years later, Dr Stopes told the aunts that their nephew, aged five- and-a-half, would benefit from a few 'whippings'. They took the child away. He was succeeded by Dick from the National Children's Adoption Society (Dick later being returned on the grounds that he would never 'bloom so as to be a credit to us'); by John (rejected for 'lack of academic ability and literary and artistic sensibility'), and by Barry, son of an impecunious former Army officer. Dr Stopes immediately changed Barry's name to Roy ('Barry' was too close to 'Harry') but within two years, Roy fell out of favour for wetting his pants, making him 'unfit to live in a decent household' and justifying a thrashing.

Coming across such things, Miss Rose became 'quite uneasy'. She is not, by nature, easily shocked. She was born into a London family of two boys and two girls, had loud and open disagreements with her father over her reluctance to 'conform' (ie marry a doctor and settle down), went off to Ireland to work as a journalist, then to Israel (ditto) before devoting her life to writing books (The Perfect Gentleman (1977), about a Victorian woman who masqueraded as a man in the British Army for 45 years; Elizabeth Fry (1980); For The Sake of the Children, a history of Barnardo's (1988), and Modigliani (1990)). She said: 'I hope this book celebrates Marie Stopes's achievement as a sexual revolutionary. I would be upset if it didn't. But I recognise there are sections which will alienate people, including feminist friends of mine.'

ONE HAS to make allowances for the society in which Marie Stopes flourished. Men were always trying to put her down. The Catholic Church would have been glad to see the end of her. Her insatiable sexual appetite, which she never bothered to hide, scandalised not a few. She was a snob in an era of ostentatious and shameless snobbery, and a racist when racism was not regarded as particularly dishonourable.

But, having made the allowances, how did June Rose maintain her biographer's detachment when confronted by a hate-filled Stopes poem which never found a publisher? 'Catholics, Prussians,/The Jews and the Russians,/ All are a curse/Or something worse' Isn't this what one would expect from a Ku Klux Klansman? Miss Rose paused, blinked several times, then nodded: 'Well, I had known about her peculiar outlook before I began the research.' And Dr Stopes's letter to 'Dear Herr Hitler' in August 1939, enclosing her book of poetry, Love Songs for Young Lovers? 'Mmmm, yes, that was very imprudent. But Marie's strong points did not include the consideration of others' feelings.'

In her little living room Miss Rose seemed, for one who cut her teeth on journalism's rough-and-tumble, circumspect in discussing this aspect of Marie Stopes's monstrous side. The reason lies in Miss Rose's Jewishness.

The author was acutely conscious of this as a child, but not particularly since then, until she began researching her Marie Stopes book. As a young girl, she had been hurt by a friend's anti-Semitic remark: 'I was going to join my parents for the weekend in a Surrey hotel, and mentioned where I was going. My friend said, 'Oh, don't go there for God's sake] It's full of Jews]' And I became painfully aware for the first time what it was like to be a Jew, even though my father's people had fled the Russian pogroms. But all that passed. I have always been a loner, I suppose; never a joiner. Although I consider myself a feminist, I don't belong to any feminist groups. For most of my adult life I haven't had to confront, or be confronted by, my Jewishness.

'However, on reading through the Marie Stopes documents, I was very conscious of the need to distance myself as a Jewish person from the task in hand. That's why I decided not to include Marie's letter excluding the Jewish refugee boy from her dining-table. I wanted to avoid being accused of special pleading.'

Like Ruth Hall, June Rose had access to the papers of Marie Stopes's son Harry, who, while finding some of them painful, was unstinting in what he handed over. As one of the principal men in his mother's life, Harry Stopes- Roe did not have an easy time of it. In addition to the musical chairs over childhood companions, his choice of a bride - the daughter of Sir Barnes ('Dambuster') Wallis - drove Dr Stopes into a fury. Expecting her son to be fastidious in all things (including wiping the cutlery at the Ritz for fear of germs), she insisted that by marrying Mary Wallis he would 'make a mock of our lives' work for Eugenic breeding and the Race'.

This would be funny were it not for the fact that Marie Stopes was a heroine for many women of her own and subsequent generations. Those who have read her famous book, Married Love, published in 1918 and translated into 13 languages, claim with justification that Dr Stopes enabled women to start asserting seriously their rights in society. Even those less well informed have a totemic regard for her as a sexual revolutionary. Leaning gently forward in her rocking-chair, June Rose said: 'Marie was a radical, but she was a right-wing radical. Many of her admirers today - people who draw inspiration from her life and work - tend to be middle-class feminists rather than working-class women. Her birth-control clinics were set up to alleviate the burden of working-class women who otherwise were destined to have large families bred in extreme poverty. But one shouldn't lose sight of her motives - the creation and preservation of a system of breeding which is in many respects similar to that advocated in Nazi Germany.'

Dr Stopes 'emasculated' most of the men in her life. Her domineering spirit reduced her first husband to impotence and her second to both impotence and paternal humiliation before she dumped him ('I hope,' wrote the pathetic Humphrey Roe, former strapping, libidinous, First World War flying ace - and committed supporter of his wife's cause - 'you will allow me to see Harry sometimes').

Did June Rose believe that such overpowering women could diminish, if not destroy, the sex-drive of their male partners, wittingly or otherwise? She hesitated: 'Yes, I think perhaps they sometimes do have that effect.' One of Dr Stopes's male acquaintances described the great feminist heroine as having 'all the charm of a viper'. I am convinced of its poison.

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution is published by Faber on 28 September.

(Photograph omitted)

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