Sometimes the most important part of fighting for justice isn’t winning, but making the world acknowledge that there’s a battle at all.
Dr. Marie Stopes was an impassioned, strategic British scientist who left academia to focus on the availability of contraceptives for all people, regardless of their class. She argued that access to contraception was the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, particularly among working class people who often couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, but who also had no means to afford sex education.
At the age of 40, in 1921, Stopes set up the Mothers’ Clinic, the UK’s first free clinic for married women to consult about contraceptive practises and to obtain the necessary equipment.
This obviously didn’t go down particularly well with those whose primary concern was maintaining traditional familial roles, particularly the Catholic Church, but also a wide swathe of political commentators. One such man was Dr. Halliday Sutherland, a tuberculosis expert who in 1922 wrote a book with a passage that implied Stopes’ work was criminal, an experiment on the poor, and that she had German sympathies – which, in a sensitive post-war period, was clearly intended to defame her. Stopes challenged Sutherland to a public debate, but when this was refused, saw no other option than to sue him for libel.
The case was heard by Lord Chief Justice Hewart, a man with a reputation for taking sides in his cases. Over the course of the trial, Stopes’ ideals and the concept of sex education were attacked heartily, with the seeming support of the judge. When the jury finally returned the verdict in Stopes’ favour, awarding her £100 in damages, the judge ruled that although the statements had been defamatory, the fact that the jury had also found them to be true meant that Sutherland had actually won the case – and Stopes was to pick up the trial’s costs. Not only that, but since some of the profits that Stopes had made from her extremely popular books had gone towards her campaigns, the judge also billed her for thousands of pounds on top of the legal fees.
Stopes was clearly furious that such an important win had been undermined at the whim of a judge, and set to appeal the case. Round two took place in the Court of Appeal. It didn’t take them long to determine that Hewart had misdirected the jury in terms of the way they should handle fact and opinion, and ultimately that Stopes’ appeal should be upheld. Sutherland was directed to pay Stopes damages and half the legal costs from the previous trial.
At this point, the weight of the Catholic Church mobilised to support Sutherland, both with its voice and with its funds. With this backing, Sutherland took his appeal to the court with the final legal say – the House of Lords. After a terse debate, they voted to uphold Sutherland’s appeal. The outcome was that Stopes would have to pay the costs for all three trials.
But though the legal battle was lost, the battle was surely won in the public eye. The amount of publicity that she won from the trial meant Marie Stopes could speak to sell-out audiences around the country, and spread her message of sexual empowerment much, much further. Her audiences were sympathetic to her legal plight, and so were also more sympathetic to her ideas. Simply standing up for herself when being sued could have done more for her message of sex education than either of her books might have alone.
As is true of us all, Marie Stopes wasn’t without her faults, and it’s important to acknowledge them. She had a troubling interest in eugenics as many leading academics did at the time, and although Marie Stopes International today is a leading proponent for the right to women to have safe, legal abortions, she herself was anti-abortion. But just as with her trial, the main message of her life holds more power: women of all classes and nationalities should have the choice about whether to bear children – and sex for pleasure shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy. She leaves a hugely important legacy.