Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

What we’re reading: The Life and Times of Stella Browne: Feminist and Free Spirit

Peter Jackson, former Labour MP and pro-choice campaigner, was intrumental in the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act. We are delighted that he has reviewed the new biography of Stella Browne by Lesely Hall.

In my more than 50 years of review writing, I have never written a review beginning with the bald statement that: this book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in fertility questions or with the rights and status of women. As the title suggests this is an account of the life and work of a remarkable woman; this is no hyperbole.

The current population – both men and women – should remember and acknowledge Stella Browne with a feeling of humility and grateful thanks. They should also acknowledge and appreciate the dedication and meticulous scholarship of Dr. Hall, who has produced a text giving a detailed account of Stella Browne’s advocacy of sexual reform.

Dr. Hall writes: “Stella Browne was a remarkable and intriguing woman. She had an impact on other lives which resonates onwards. Her life illuminates the possibilities for, and the constraints upon, the daring and experimental women of the earlier twentieth century.”

I too have a similar commitment and have contributed to our joint causes. I sponsored and was the whip on David Steel’s 1967 Bill which changed the UK’s abortion law. Despite this, when I read the account of Browne’s life, I feel reverence and a sense of humility. She has significantly contributed to what we now take for granted.

It is salutary to read a statement Browne made in the early 1920s, concerning the Labour Party’s attitude to issues such as birth control. She was conscious of the opposition of Roman Catholic ministers and added there was a problem concerning the “bureaucratic mind [which] runs in groves,” and the “deadly influence of Nonconformist pseudo-Puritanism, the legacy of nineteenth century Liberalism to the Labour Party.”

Elsewhere she notes the Webbs’ obdurate attitude. While the vast majority of Labour Party members were in full support of her demand that there be public provision of birth control information, the Party’s hierarchy opposed reform.

Stella Browne was born into a middle class family in Nova Scotia. Sadly she has left little account of her early life. What we do know is that she was above average intelligence and developed linguistic skills which led her to win a History Exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford.

Following graduation she worked as a schoolteacher and as the librarian at Morley College, London. She records that this last experience influenced her views and led her to describe herself as a left-wing socialist. She joined the Communist Party in the early 1920s, but given her deeply rooted belief in diversity of needs and feelings of humankind, she resigned in 1922 as a result of the Party’s “exclusively masculine point of view on a fundamental human question.” She explained that: “Birth control for women is no less essential than workshop control and determination of the conditions of labour for men.”

Stella Browne was a competent and inspiring lecturer. I was struck by the size of the audiences she was able to attract when arguing the need for public provisions for birth control while the Labour Party’s hierarchy resisted this demand. It is hardly surprising that she castigated the attitude of the Party’s bureaucracy as “deplorable and disgraceful.”

Browne never married, despite having a number of lovers. She could not rely on the income of a partner and must have been beset by financial problems. She lived with and cared for her invalid mother, who “suffered terribly from acute neuralgia,” Browne wrote. I am struck by the fact that despite her modest and uncertain income she contributed to appeals for financial aid to support those suffering from famine in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. She was a true internationalist and sought to bring to public attention European provisions regarding sexual practices, particularly abortion which for her was a basic right.

Stella Browne should be honoured for advocating what we now talk about openly, for women to have basic rights concerning their fertility. In 1937, appearing before the Parliamentary Birkett Committee, she spoke of her right and her qualification to speak on abortion, stating: “I have also – and I say this as a matter of public duty – the knowledge of my own person that, if abortion was necessarily fatal or injurious, I would not now be here before you.”

One can understand Dr. Hall’s comment: “The transcript of the interview does not record the gasps of horrified silence, but surely some response intervened before Norman Birkett resumed the interview with the phrase, ‘you will understand that nobody would challenge the sincerity of your motives.’” As I know only too well from my own experience as a latter-day Herod, she was drawing attention to herself as a “murderer”. No one could accuse her of lacking courage.

Inevitably, the historical documentation records Browne’s public life; therefore Dr Hall’s biography concentrates on Browne’s work on behalf of abortion and birth control reform, divorce law reform and changes in the law regarding homosexuality. Her published work in progressive journals is recorded in detail together with accounts of her interactions with similarly minded reformers such as Bertrand Russell and his then wife Dora Russell, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, Margaret Sanger, etc.

Historians of the period will be grateful for the minutiae relating to the campaigning activities of the various causes and publications with which she was associated. As a young man in the 1940s I read and was glad to read Theodore Van de Velde’s “Ideal Marriage”, a self-help book on sex, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and was reprinted umpteen times. Stella Browne translated Van de Velde’s text from the original Dutch. As Dr. Hall notes she did not share in the considerable royalties which he must have enjoyed.

The war and failing health in the 1940s inevitably limited Browne’s activities. Her move to Liverpool must also have militated against her previous political involvement. She died in 1955. The Abortion Law Reform Association’s annual report for 1954-5 reported that the movement had recently lost “Stella Browne, our Vice-Chairman and a gallant fighter who will some day be acclaimed for her outspokenness at a time when the words ‘abortion problem’ were hardly articulated above a whisper.” Dr Hall’s monograph has demolished any excuse we may have to ignore her contribution. The least we can do is to ensure there is a National Heritage blue plaque on her London home.

Lesley A Hall, The Life and Times of Stella Browne: Feminist and Free Spirit, published by I, B. Tauris, London pp.292, £25