Exhibition review: The white washing of Marie Stopes’ eugenicist beliefs

By Dana Khalil Ahmad

“Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognise those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour and expectation.” – Audre Lorde

I first visited the Wellcome Collection’s “Institute of Sexology” exhibition earlier this year. This article articulates my thoughts on a section the exhibition – the part of “The Consulting Room” dealing with Marie Stopes, the “feminist, eugenicist, and paleobotanist.” While Marie Stopes is, for the most part, portrayed as a person whose feminism drove her birth control activism, the role of her racist and ableist eugenicism is, while not totally omitted, decentered in the narrative of her life.

In the exhibition, Marie Stopes, who was the first woman to gain an academic post at the University of Manchester, is represented as having three main achievements: Her advocacy of equality in sexual relations and satisfaction for both spouses, most famously through her book Married Love (a book that became controversial for its discussion of female sexual desire and contraception), her work as a paleobotanist, and her campaigns for birth control.

She is introduced through her use of the “consulting room”, a private space in which experience is shared with the purpose of improving one’s quality of life. A video plays in which we see Stopes playing with her young son while on holiday. A long, intricate line chart shows tabulations representing her own notations of her sex drive. This is said to have been a way of countering the shaming of women’s sexuality. In the exhibit boxes, between letters exchanged between Marie Stopes and her love interest the paleobotanist Kenjiro Fuji, sit archeological samples from Marie Stopes’s work as a paleobotanist. Photos of her clinics and posters highlight her birth control advocacy. One photo shows her horse-drawn birth control caravan, the first of its kind in the world. Needless to say, her work in this field was also controversial. In her clinic, a picture of a child was hung on the wall, used to dispel the idea that her clinic was against children. In essence, her philosophy on birth control was “babies in the right place.”

By now, I had bought the idea that Stopes was a feminist pioneer breaking down the taboo surrounding women’s sexuality while advocating their right to decide when to have children.

Then I saw one of the birth control devices made by the Society for Constructive Birth Control, of which Marie Stopes was the founder. The device is a “racial brand cervical cap.” On the placard describing this device, Marie Stopes is said to have also believed in the removal of “undesirables” from society.

I retraced my steps and returned to the posters made by the society. On the placards, the society is named the “Society for Constructive Birth Control.” However, looking closely at the original posters published by the society, the full name is the “Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress.” To be fair, it is not unusual that a long name is shortened, but this was a significant omission. “Unwanted babies” assumes totally different meaning when contextualised within the eugenics movement.

I had no idea how to come to terms with this supposed contradiction. How can one advocate sexual liberation and choice while also calling for racial engineering?

I risk, in my critique, coming dangerously close to aligning myself with conservative critics of Stopes. Nevertheless, this is necessary intersectional work, without which many, including myself, have a hard time identifying with a feminist history that is white and ableist by default.

Looking back, Stopes’s eugenicist beliefs are framed as an unfortunate or embarrassing footnote to her achievements. It is implied that this grey area of her life is a result of the era she lived in and is unrelated to her feminism. Is this not why there is an international NGO as well as a UK-based charity, both providers of birth control, named after her?

The video of Stopes playing with her son takes on a totally different meaning when considered in light of her eugenicist beliefs. She later refused to support her son’s marriage to Mary Wallis, a woman with an eye problem. She wrote:

The essential is health in a potential mother and she [Mary Wallis] has an inherited disease of the eyes which not only makes her wear hideous glasses so that it is horrid to look at her, but the awful curse will carry on and I have the horror of our line being so contaminated and little children with the misery of glasses … Mary and Harry are quite callous about both the wrong to their children, the wrong to my family and the eugenic crime.

While her first book Married Love and her novels were emphasised in the exhibition, her increasingly eugenicist propaganda writings were left unmentioned. She later wrote that babies had the right to “be given a body untainted by any heritable disease, uncontaminated by any of the racial poisons.”

In the post-World War II era, Britain has tended to distance itself from the more hardline racist discourses of continental Europe. As Dan Stone has argued, race was not simply a synonym for nation, and the lower classes who were mostly targeted were often racialised immigrants. The discourse of saving the British race from degeneracy arose in continuation of imperialist discourses situating Britain as the most fit to rule. Marie Stopes wrote in 1919: “If you go down the mean streets of our cities [you will be forced to ask] … Are these puny-faced, gaunt, blotchy, ill-balanced, feeble, ungainly, withered children the young of an imperial race?”

Birth control technology is very much rooted in racist and classist thinking. In the interwar period, birth control was articulated both in terms of individual choice as well as “seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit,” said Margaret Sanger, whom the exhibition mentions in passing as an inspiration of Stopes. At the same time, it is undeniable that there were women who indeed benefitted from Marie Stopes’s birth control advocacy, despite the dark underlying ideology. Yet it is unfair that the experiences of these women be given attention and not those of the so-called undesirables, whose erotic desires were pathologised and seen as dangerous.

After finishing the Marie Stopes section, I was left certain of the continued invisibility of whiteness, in the sense that whiteness is the unspoken, sedimented norm that is taken for granted. The BBC’s historical figures page dedicated to Stopes does not even mention her eugenicist beliefs. The continued dominance of history based on white experience is normalised. This is a problem that those of us who work in the field of intersectionality continue to deal with.

The section on Marie Stopes ends with letters written to her by the general public. Most thank her for her positive effect on the intimacy of their married lives. However, the right to pleasure, which Stopes is hailed as a feminist hero for advocating, was not a universal right. The “private room” in which Stopes spoke to clients about their sex lives was an invisibly white space. I return here to the Audre Lorde quote I began with. It is only through the acknowledgement of difference and its effects that we can write critical and inclusive feminist history.

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Dana Khalil Ahmad is currently completing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She obtained a BA in International Studies with a minor in English Literature from the American University of Sharjah. Her research focuses on writing women into Arab history. She is currently working on the effect of Christian missionaries on indigenous healing practices in Kuwait. Find her on Twitter @danaxahmad 

This article was commissioned and edited by Tara John

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7 replies

  1. Good stuff.

    It is high time that the history of eugenics is put in a proper context: it’s not like the Nazis’ eugenics ideas sprang from nowhere: “genial”, supposedly humanitarian, characters who stand like pillars in our cultural landscape, such as Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw, were eugenicists: most importantly, it shows that these figures are in fact straw men (or women), whose judgements about matters like genetics, ethnicity and so much more, were massively unscientific, and based on assumptions which were arrived at completely irrationally. In the case of eugenics, from Darwin’s revelations.

    If their views on eugenics could be talked about more widely I think the value of their other contributions, and indeed the thinking of entire generations, could be down-valued and de-mythologised. People like Galton were not contributors to science, they were by modern standards deeply flawed and hugely prejudiced human beings most of whose thinking is ultimately valueless.

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  2. I enjoyed your post about an exhibition that I did not get to see. I was interested to read your remark that “I risk, in my critique, coming dangerously close to aligning myself with conservative critics of Stopes.”
    I don’t know which critic you meant in particular, but I thought you might be interested in the story of Dr Halliday Sutherland. He criticised Stopes in his 1922 book “Birth Control”. She sued him for libel and the case opened in the High Court in 21 February 1923. Biographers of Stopes’ invariably portray him as motivated by his Roman Catholic beliefs, but is the way Stopes biographers have portrayed Sutherland the accurate picture? I would argue not.
    In 1911, Sutherland was in the forefront of the fight against tuberculosis, a disease which killed and disabled around 120,000 people each year in Britain at that time. He ran the St Marylebone Tuberculosis Clinic, edited and contributed to a book on tuberculosis, produced Britain’s first public health education film for cinemas and established an “open air” school for tuberculous children in a bandstand in Regent’s Park. His work took him into the slums of London, because tuberculosis had a greater impact on the urban poor than better-off groups in society.
    In 1912, Karl Pearson F.R.S. and Professor of Eugenics at London University gave a lecture “Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment”. In it, he criticised the work of doctors, because they focussed on infection. This was foolish, he said, because a person’s genes were far more influential than their environment. Genetic inheritance, not environment, was the main cause of tuberculosis. He said:
    “The large proportion of tuberculous members – occasionally the tuberculous man is a brilliant member of our race – but the bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage. Everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize that the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate.”
    In other words, the cure for the disease would be achieved by discouraging the birth rate among the urban poor. Sutherland rebutted Pearson’s views in his 1912 article in the British Medical Journal (“The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis”).
    While to BMJ article had opposed eugenics on scientific and statistical grounds, by 1917, his opposition was on moral and ethical grounds as well. In September 1917 he delivered a speech (“Consumption: Its Cause and Cure”) in which he said that the obstacle to curing tuberculosis was not germs, but man-made. He attacked eugenists and described them as “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders.” He added that in treating the urban poor you were “not preserving the weak, but conserving the strong.”
    Significantly, at this time Sutherland was a Presbyterian. He did not become a Catholic until 1919, so his opposition to eugenics cannot have been caused by his conversion to Catholicism. It is likely that he was drawn to the Church because of its opposition to eugenics.
    With this background it was perhaps inevitable that, when Stopes set up her eugenic clinic in 1921, Sutherland would speak out again. Stopes’ clinic did have positive aims, such as improving the health of mothers by spacing pregnancies and giving women choice. But it also had negative eugenic aims, and Stopes saw contraceptives as the solution to the differential birth rate.
    Her eugenic agenda was clear: as you have pointed out it was reflected in the name of the organisation running the clinic. Under oath in the Stopes v Sutherland trial, Stopes said:
    “The object of the Society is, if possible, to counteract the steady evil which has been growing for a good many years of the reduction of the birth rate just on the part of the thrifty, wise, well-contented, and the generally sound members of our community, and the reckless breeding from the C.3 end, and the semi-feebleminded, the careless, who are proportionately increasing in our community because of the slowing of the birth rate at the other end of the social scale. Statistics show that every year the birth rate from the worst end of our community is increasing in proportion to the birth rate at the better end, and it was in order to try to right that grave social danger that I embarked upon this work.”
    A few years before, at the National Birth Rate Commission, she was on the record as advocating the compulsory sterilisation of “hopelessly bad cases, bad through inherent disease, or drunkenness or character.” In Chapter 20 of her book “Radiant Motherhood” it was the “degenerate, feeble minded and unbalanced” that should be sterilised. Addressing the Voluntary Parenthood League it was “wastrels, the diseased…the miserable [and] the criminal”. In addition to these pronouncements, she campaigned for this cause. For example, she sent a copy of “Radiant Motherhood” to the Prime Minister’s private secretary, drawing attention to Chapter 20 and urging the secretary to get Lloyd George to read it.
    Certainly, part of Sutherland’s motivation was his disapproval of contraceptives. Like many of his eugenic opponents, he worried about the impact that their ready availability would have on public morality.
    When biographers of Stopes acknowledge her eugenic beliefs, they sometimes profess to deplore these. In this sense, they are like Dr Halliday Sutherland. After all, he also deplored her eugenic beliefs. Unlike them though, he didn’t have the benefit of quiet academic research to investigate the issues. To him, her clinic was eugenics in action and, having spoken out before, he spoke out again. His stand took great courage: eugenics was very popular among the Establishment, the intelligentsia and politicians. Further, at the time of the case, Sutherland was married with three children under five years old and the case threatened to ruin him, particularly were he to lose.
    To my mind, if those who deplored Stopes’ eugenic beliefs were sincere, they would be more sympathetic to Dr Halliday Sutherland rather than vilifying him as a religious zealot.
    I hope you don’t mind the space I have taken up but thought you would appreciate the historical background.
    Mark Sutherland (curator hallidaysutherland.com)

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  3. I wonder too those who cozy up to empire whether or not they process the mass misery, mass emasculation, mass violence, and mass terror visited upon the Other.

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  4. Yeah, I’ve always wondered if the people who think Margaret Sanger is so wonderful know the whole story. Kind of like I wonder if the people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts are just ignorant or are they really fans of mass killers.

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  5. Really good post. It is so important that prominent figures in history are NOT misrepresented or window-dressed to avoid vital, if possibly uncomfortable discourse.

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  6. Really good post. It is so important that prominent figures in history are misrepresented or window-dressed to avoid vital, if possibly uncomfortable discourse.

    Like

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