Review: Pioneering women’s rights

"The Life and Times of Stella Browne: feminist and free spirit" by Lesley A Hall

ONE EVENING in 1922, 900 people packed into the Working Men’s Institute in the Welsh town of Tredegar. They were there to hear a talk on ‘Birth Control and Socialism’, organised by the Communist Party. The speaker was Stella Browne. This was a year after Marie Stopes set up the first birth-control (family planning) clinic in London, and the same year in which Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop were put in prison. Their crime was to publish a British edition of Margaret Sanger’s book, Family Limitation, which contravened UK obscenity laws. For the working-class women and men of Tredegar this was an opportunity to hear in person this, by then, veteran campaigner for women’s reproductive rights who described herself as a “socialist and extreme left-wing feminist”.

The Life and Times of Stella Browne, by Lesley A Hall, contains many such snapshots of life in the labour movement, and birth-control and sex-reform movements in the early 20th century. Through Hall’s painstaking research of letters, newspapers, periodicals, even committee minutes, she builds an intriguing picture of a woman who was both of her time and way ahead of it.

Browne was born in 1880 in Canada, but lived most of her adult life in Britain, having moved there with her widowed mother and sister while in her mid-teens. Coming of age at the turn of the 20th century she took an active part in the Independent Labour Party and many of the progressive movements of the time, including the Women’s Social and Political Union, which campaigned for voting rights for women, the Secular Society, and the Divorce Law Reform Society.

She was a lifelong friend of Havelock Ellis, who studied and wrote about the ‘new science’ of sex psychology and whose works were a significant challenge to Victorian bourgeois ideology about male and female sexuality. Browne’s own pamphlet, The Sexual Variety and Variability among Women and their Bearing on Social Reconstruction, written in 1917, was a radical rejection of the conventional view that sex for women was something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Hall notes that Browne greeted the Russian revolution with enthusiasm as “glorious news”. Like many in the British labour and trade union movement at the time she was inspired by the Russian workers’ overthrow of the old order and early attempts to bring about a socialist economic and social system, and she joined the Communist Party. Particularly significant for her was the early Soviet government’s radical social policies which gave women not just the vote, but the legal right to divorce and abortion, and also legalised homosexuality.

Given her radical political views, it seems strange that Browne joined the Malthusian League with its philosophy (after Thomas Malthus) that poverty was caused not by capitalism and economic crisis but by overpopulation. However, it was the only British organisation publicly advocating contraception at that time. So, while she argued strongly against the anti-socialist views put forward by the leaders, calling them “Neo-Darwinian eugenicists” full of “class hatred and race hatred”, she wrote for the League’s paper, New Generation, and spoke on its behalf because of what she saw as its important role in raising the issue of birth control.

Marie Stopes, Browne’s more famous contemporary in the campaign for birth control, had no such qualms about eugenics and was a staunch supporter. In her book, Radiant Motherhood (1920), Stopes called for the “sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood [to] be made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory”.

Unlike many of her contemporaries in the birth-control movement, Browne saw access to contraception not as a means to limit excess breeding by the poor, but as an “absolute right” of a woman “to decide whether or not she will bear a child or children”. Like others in the emerging labour movement she campaigned for child allowances, better housing and health clinics for mothers, but not as an alternative to birth control. She wrote: “We must secure a decent chance in material environment for every child born into the world… But our right to refuse maternity is also an inalienable right. Our wills are ours, our persons are ours: nor shall all the priests and scientists in the world deprive us of the right to say ‘no’.”

In 1924, the first Labour government was elected and Browne joined the author HG Wells and others in a deputation to see the new minister for health, John Wheatley. They put the case for contraception to be given free in maternity clinics, under public health provision. This was more in hope than expectation and the minister refused.

A week later, the biggest Labour Women’s conference held up to that date passed a motion calling on the health minister to permit health authorities to provide information on birth control. Out of this conference, the Workers Birth Control Group was established to campaign within the labour movement for public funding for birth control. It was not until Labour was back in office in 1929 – five years of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions later – that the Local Government Act gave councils the power, though not necessarily a duty, to fund contraception and advice.

Browne’s belief in the “right to refuse maternity” extended not just to prevention of pregnancy, but also to the right to end an unwanted pregnancy. She is perhaps best known for her role in setting up the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) in 1936 but, by then, she had been a determined, courageous and often lone advocate for the right to a safe, legal abortion for over 25 years.

In Britain, abortion was illegal before 1967 except to preserve the life of the mother. While some wealthier women managed to get round the law and obtain medically supervised abortions at private clinics, most working-class women had to resort to unskilled ‘backstreet’ abortionists or unsafe and usually ineffective ‘abortificants’. These often contained harmful chemicals such as lead and could cause blindness or even death. In the 1920s, one in 15 maternal deaths were recorded as resulting from backstreet abortions, but the actual figure is likely to have been even higher.

Women often suffered serious health problems from multiple pregnancies and births. This was especially so for working-class women, with little access to antenatal care, a diet of mainly tea and bread, overcrowded and damp living conditions, and little or no leisure time. Browne wrote of “a married woman aged 41. Twelve live births, four children dead, eight surviving. Three bad miscarriages. Motherhood in all its sacredness”.

Sadly, Browne did not live to see the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, which in England, Scotland and Wales extended access to abortion rights on social rather than just narrow medical grounds. While she would have welcomed the act as long overdue, no doubt she would have felt the need to keep on campaigning, because it still falls short of her call for women’s ‘absolute right’ to decide whether to have a child.

The decision still rests with the two doctors who have to give permission for an abortion to go ahead. In Northern Ireland, the act does not apply at all and women face the same archaic laws as their grandmothers did. It also did not provide for any additional funding through the NHS. Around a quarter of women nationally have to go private – and in London, as many as a third. Cuts in NHS funding are likely to make this situation worse. Rights are also under attack from Tory MP Nadine Dorries, with her attempts to force women to have pre-abortion ‘counselling’ and remove the British Pregnancy Advisory Service from its role in voluntary counselling at present.

Browne showed tremendous courage and determination. The ALRA rightly pays tribute to her “outspokenness at a time when the words ‘abortion problem’ were hardly articulated over a shocked whisper”. This was especially the case when her ‘lifestyle’ itself was an affront to bourgeois respectability. She never married yet, by her own account, lived an “intellectually and sexually active life”. She had what she calls a “demi-semi lover” and relationships with others, men and women. She did not have, and never wanted, children and rejected the widely held idea that all women were inherently maternal.

A hundred years on, her personal life and ideas on sexuality would no longer be viewed as so controversial. Capitalism has managed to assimilate changes to personal and family life. But Stella Browne’s belief that lasting emancipation and truly equal relations between the sexes required fundamental change in the economic and social system remains just as true today.

The Life and Times of Stella Browne: feminist and free spirit

By Lesley A Hall

Published by IB Tauris, 2011, £25

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March 2012