Watching Downton Abbey With an Historian: Birth Control -The Toast

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Previous installments in this series can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road.]

240px-Marie_Stopes_in_her_laboratory,_1904Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was a remarkable person. The daughter of progressive intellectuals, she earned a science degree (botany and geology) from University College, London, in 1902 before becoming the first woman to take a PhD in botany from the Botanical Institute in Munich and the first woman to be appointed assistant lecturer in the same subject at Manchester University. She enjoyed a glittering academic career; when she married in 1911, she kept her own name and voiced support for women’s suffrage. That marriage, though, was something of a disaster: Stopes later claimed that she had had to educate herself on the physical realities of sex and pregnancy by studying relevant texts in the British Library, and the marriage was annulled in 1916 on the strength of Stopes’s claim that it was unconsummated. She became involved in sexology and, from there, the birth control movement.

200px-Married_Love_CoverIn 1918, Stopes published the huge bestseller Married Love; she also married the book’s financial backer and fellow contraception advocate, Humphrey Verdon Roe, and became pregnant for the first time. Stopes believed that sexual intercourse within marriage was not solely for the procreation of children. She hoped that, in Married Love, “average healthy mating creatures will find the key to happiness which should be the portion of each.” She also believed that birth control helped parents to have “healthy, happy, desired, babies,” a goal she linked, in common with many of her contemporaries, with the eugenicist goal of improving the human stock through careful breeding. Stopes became the most famous birth control and sexual education advocate in Britain, opening clinics and publishing and lecturing widely over the following decades.

The specter of unwanted pregnancy loomed over three characters in last night’s episode. Anna is confronted with the possibility that she might have gotten pregnant when Green raped her. Lady Edith is lectured on the dangers of pre-marital sex by Aunt Rosamund. And Edna presses Tom for a promise to marry her if it turns out she’s pregnant after their dubious encounter (the details of which are left rather murky). In the dénouement of this sordid narrative arc, Mrs. Hughes bluffs, telling Edna that she has confiscated Married Love from her room and knows she’s practicing contraception, threatening, too, to have a doctor forcibly examine her for signs of pregnancy. The bluff works and Edna flees in disgrace, leaving the viewer to wonder what, exactly, is in the slim volume that Mrs. Hughes hands back so disdainfully.

Happily for the curious viewer, Married Love and its much more contraception-focused sequel, Wise Parenthood, are both freely available in full on the internet. One can only imagine the sharp-nosed Edna settling down to learn how to prevent pregnancy and being confronted with over 150 pages of prose and chapter titles such “The Heart’s Desire” and “The Fundamental Pulse.” Page after page explore the various ways in which married couples might struggle to achieve sexual happiness together: this is, at its heart, a handbook about how to have a companionate marriage, a marriage that is not a contract for procreation and running a household but a physical and emotional union. Married Love is a vanguard for the very ideals of marital harmony and mutual fulfillment that animate our advice columns and couples therapists to this day. It is also a passionate endorsement of female sexuality—an ode of feminist sex positivity couched in the slightly hilarious language of early twentieth century progressives:

Both law and custom have strengthened the view that [the husband] has the right to approach his wife [sexually] whenever he wishes, and that she has no wishes and no fundamental needs in the matter at all. That woman has a rhythmic sex tide which, if its indications were obeyed, would ensure not only her enjoyment and an accession of health and vitality … seems not to be suspected. We have studied the wave-lengths of water, of sound, of light; but when will the sons and daughters of men study the sex-tide in woman and learn the laws of her Periodicity of Recurrence of desire?

What, then, of birth control? Stopes discusses early withdrawal and alludes to its potential to prevent pregnancy, but deprecates it as leaving “the woman in ‘mid-air’ as it were; to leave her stimulated and unsatisfied.” Prevention of pregnancy, she writes, “may be done either by shutting the sperms away from the opening of the womb, or by securing the death of all … of the two to six hundred million sperms which enter the woman,” adding: “Their minute and uncovered bodies are plasmolised in weak acid, such as vinegar and water, or by a solution of quinine, or by many other substances.”

hommediaEdna would have found more detailed information in Wise Parenthood, though Stopes is clear, here, that her advice is intended for married couples wishing to limit their family size. She endorses “a small rubber cap, made on a firm rubber ring, which is accurately fixed round the dome-like end of the womb” and secured by suction, perhaps used in conjunction with quinine or soap as a spermicide. The problem for Edna, of course, would be obtaining an appropriate version of such a device as an unmarried woman. Stopes also discusses condoms, or “sheaths under various names, formed either from rubber, skin, or treated silk,” but argues that they disrupt the physical intimacy of sex. Finally, she condemns a range of the methods that would have been most accessible to a lady’s maid in Yorkshire in 1922, particularly douching with lysol, carbolic acid, vinegar, or salt.

Rudimentary as all these methods sound to modern ears, it is the case that a small family had become a social norm by the 1920s and 1930s, indicating widespread use of methods of fertility control. Stopes was not the first the publicize these methods; handbills and pamphlets had been increasingly available from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Her innovation, rather, was to make them increasingly respectable. A woman like Mrs. Hughes was disgusted at the idea of Edna using birth control; she might not have been so disturbed at the idea of Anna and Mr. Bates taking similar steps to plan their family. Similarly, the worldly Aunt Rosamund might have had more practical advice on preventing pregnancy were Lady Edith already married. The use of such methods was endorsed by people such as Marie Stopes not as a mode of individual sexual liberation (as would be the case with the Pill in the 1960s) but a way to enrich married and family life and to produce fewer, healthier, and more secure children. And yet, as Married Love shows, it is impossible to disentangle those goals from personal sexual agency and fulfillment; technologies developed in the service of one aim are inevitably redeployed to other ends.


Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Lesley A. Hall, “Stopes, Marie Charlotte Carmichael (1880-1958),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, online edition, May 2008), at (subscription site).

Marie Stopes, Married Love (1918)

Marie Stopes, Wise Parenthood (1918)

Image of stem pessary IUD courtesy of Science Museum London.

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