That nagging Malthusian fear that first arose in the early 1800s lingered on into the 20th century. There were many in Britain, who a hundred years later, still feared the country’s burgeoning population would one day outstrip the nation’s resources.
But it wasn’t population growth that was the problem, per se. After all, a rising birth rate was good for the economy. Rather, it was that the ‘wrong sort’ of people were doing most of the breeding: the poor, uneducated working class. And that, it was widely believed, would weaken Britain’s genetic make-up.
In Married Love, published in 1918, scientist and women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes promoted the idea that sex should be enjoyed for its own sake between spouses. She championed the use of contraceptives as a way of liberating women, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.
The Church, the government, and the medical profession took a dim view, calling it a manual for prostitution. But Stopes pressed on regardless, and three years later in March 1921, the first ‘mothers’ clinic’ in north London was opened.
There, the women, who Stopes described as “very poor and shabby”, received free advice on family planning seven days a week. The nurses made notes on the advice given and tracked the success rates of the various methods of contraception.
But the clinic wasn’t run for the sole benefit of the women who visited. Stopes was a staunch supporter of selective breeding in people, otherwise known as eugenics.
If those who were “unfit for parenthood” (her daughter-in-law included) could be prevented from breeding, she believed, the nation could be made genetically stronger. And sadly, she wasn’t alone. During the 1930s and ‘40s, the Nazis murdered and sterilised millions of ‘undesirables’ across Europe.
While her views on eugenics cast a dark cloud over her legacy, Stopes is more fondly remembered today for her pioneering role in promoting women’s rights as well as promoting a greater awareness of sexual health through her clinics.