Eugenicist or Humanitarian? Situating Stopes in contemporary opera

It's hard to neatly reconcile Marie Stopes’ well-documented eugenicist views with her feminist and humanitarian achievements. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible. On the one hand, some of the views she expressed were deeply alarming. On the other, her achievements in sexual and public health were unique and revolutionary. Viewing her purely as a humanitarian hero is to ignore her troubling views, while condemning her as a eugenicist disregards the tens of thousands of women and men she genuinely helped. It’s a challenge that anyone seeking to explore her life or work comes up against, which I’ve recently experienced myself while developing the new opera, “Dear Marie Stopes."

When discussing this dilemma with the librettist for the opera, Jennifer Thorp, I was reminded that these debates exist around other powerful figures in the history of contraception, like Margaret Sanger who established what would become Planned Parenthood in the US. Like Stopes, she also held strong eugenicist, racist views. These are complicated women with confronting opinions, and you can't airbrush that out of their legacy. Two sources that have helped grow my understanding of this sensitive dichotomy are Dr Lesley Hall’s illuminating essay: Situating Stopes, which puts eugenics into a historical context, and this column by Zoe Williams exploring the extremes of Stopes’ views before concluding with: “The women she [Stopes] provided with contraception didn't care whether she thought they were scum who should leave the breeding to the master race... They just wanted not to have 18 children. They just wanted the choice.”

This latter quote has personally helped me a lot as I’ve developed the piece, mainly because it’s reminded me about whose story we are telling. After all, the piece is not ‘Marie Stopes - the opera’. Instead, it focuses on the tens of thousands of ordinary people who wrote to Stopes in desperate need, or to share passionate views and opinions, following the publication of Stopes' revolutionary ‘sex manual’ Married Love in 1918. At that time, women and men all over the world were suffering in silence as a result of not having access to clear information about sex, sexual health and contraception. Regardless of Stopes’ views, the candidness of her book changed this situation overnight. The fabric of the opera is woven from the deeply personal stories and experiences contained in the letters, written to Stopes 100 years ago but with a striking poignancy and relevance to today’s audience. The aim of the piece is to share the very moving stories of these people who Stopes inspired to write to her, rather than put Stopes’ character on public trial. 

That said, focusing on the views and experiences of the general public has not removed the obstacle of dealing with Stopes herself in the opera. For the most part, she functions as a conduit of communications and a reason for us hearing all of these stories in the first place. But it felt like the piece needed a centre of gravity, rather than existing as a string of fragmented letters. So, we do hear from Stopes directly in the piece. Sometimes in her often blunt responses to the letters she received. At other times expressing opinions about eugenics or women’s bodily freedom. At a pivotal moment in the piece we also learn about a very personal tragedy Stopes experienced, set against a backdrop of the challenges experiences by those who wrote to her. In this moment, we briefly see her as a vulnerable, fallible human, detached from her public persona and just like any one of the thousands of people who wrote to her.  

Is this allowed? I asked myself. Are we allowed to encourage an audience to empathise with Stopes? And, indeed, is an audience allowed to feel empathy for her? Again, I don’t think there is a neat answer to these questions either. What I do know is what drew me to the source material in the first place is the human suffering and vulnerability expressed in the original letters, and the correspondents’ desire, need even, to share this suffering with another human being who they hoped would understand. 

Whether we decide to celebrate or abhor Stopes herself, it is the very real, raw human experiences of both Stopes and her correspondents that spoke to me and that’s what I hope, in some small way, the piece manages to capture and express. 

With great thanks to Dr Lesley Hall and Jennifer Thorp who have been indispensable collaborators in shaping this project.

The Royal Mail came under high-level criticism in 2008 for featuring Stopes on this special edition postage stamp, part of a collection celebrating "women of achievement".

The Royal Mail came under high-level criticism in 2008 for featuring Stopes on this special edition postage stamp, part of a collection celebrating "women of achievement".