The Dorset Woman Who Changed Opinion On Parenting And Relationships

January’s Shaftesbury and District Historical Society lecture offers an insight into the life of one of Dorset’s most influential and controversial residents, Dr Marie Stopes.

David Carter will explain how the Portland-based scientist was once reviled by a government but has recently been revered for her thought-provoking writings.

Dr Marie Stopes died in 1958, but the scientist has clearly had a profound effect on David Carter. He wouldn’t be a Trustee of Portland Museum if it weren’t for her. Stopes helped set up the collection, in 1930. “She was quite an amazing woman,” said David.

Today, most people know of Marie Stopes because of the abortion and contraception clinics that bear her name and which operate in 37 countries. But David’s talk will reveal how few people know the full extent of Dr Stopes’ skills and accomplishments. “She had an enormous intellectual capacity and she was the youngest doctor of science. She was also a Doctor of Philosophy. She had an interesting life, an unfortunate love affair and an unfortunate marriage, which prompted her to look at the facts of life.”

Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes was divorced in 1913, at a time when society frowned upon the practice. At around the same time she wrote a book arguing that men and women should be equal within marriage. Her thoughts were radical for the time and it made her a household name.

David’s presentation celebrates the centenary of Stopes’ book, which many publishers were too nervous to print at the time. “It is the 100th anniversary of the publication of ‘Married Love’. I shall start off the talk by asking how many people have heard of the book and how many have read it. I shall be very surprised if more than one or two have actually read it,” David said.

In 1918 most people were aware of the best seller. “There were a colossal number of reprints and it’s been translated into many different languages,” said David. And one well-known commentator has claimed that ‘Married Love’ was groundbreaking. “Melvyn Bragg suggested that there are twelve books that changed the world. They include Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’, books by Shakespeare and the King James Bible. But not many people would have thought of ‘Married Love’ as having that impact.”

Even though Marie Stopes is associated with abortion because of the clinic connections, David says that the scientist was not in favour of terminating pregnancies. “She favoured planned parenthood. She had some very bad press and quite extreme things were said.”

David says that there was an outpouring of anger directed at Stopes. “She also had an interest in eugenics, which was something of the period. Today, when we think of eugenics, we think of Rwanda or Hitler but there are degrees of eugenics including stem cell research at one end of the scale and the Holocaust at the other,” said David. “The abortion argument comes into eugenics and planned or ‘designer families’. In the 1940s, the Australian Parliament said that there were three great evils in the world – Hitler, Goebbels and Marie Stopes. She was never daunted by these things. There were a series of episodes that led to her taking on libel cases with the Catholic Church, which were very demoralising.”

David says that Marie Stopes became tired of London and decided to move to Dorset. “Her doctorate was about a particular Jurassic plant – a cycad. On Portland we have quite a number of fossilised cycads and it was one of the reasons she was attracted here,” explained David.

Stopes purchased a distinctive and impressive home on the island. “In 1922, she bought the Old Higher Lighthouse and she owned it until the year before she died. Whilst she was there she started Portland Museum. She became friendly with Thomas Hardy. His book ‘The Well-beloved’ was based on the cottage where the museum now stands,” said David. “She bought the two cottages and gave them to the people of Portland and became the first curator of the museum. She stayed on the management committee until the year before she died.”

David’s talk will touch on Stopes’ fascinating connections with the big names of the era. “She knew Margot Fontaine, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw. This is the sort of group she was communicating with.”

And David says Stopes was a strong character. “She was not an easy lady by any stretch of the imagination. She was very self opinionated and a positive sort of character so she was bound to cause some degree of controversy,” said David. “If she had not had an unhappy love affair and an unhappy marriage she would probably have gone on to be one of the greatest scientists of the day. Her work on fossilised fuels and the classification of types of coal is still used today. It’s another Jurassic plant, basically.”

David Carter’s lecture, ‘The Remarkable Dr Marie Stopes’ takes places at 2.30pm on Tuesday on 8th January at Gold Hill Museum. The talk is free to Shaftesbury and District Historical Society members. Mon-members can pay £3 at the door.