In 1926, the second birth control clinic outside of London opened its doors to women seeking free family planning advice. Located in the impoverished Greengate area of Salford, the clinic provided birth control information to working class women who weren’t able to pay for private advice from a doctor. The controversial clinic faced opposition from the Catholic Church and the medical profession but fought on and continued to offer its services to women until birth control advice was widely and freely available in the 1970s.
Unlike the suffragettes’ attention-grabbing campaigns to secure women’s rights to vote, the local-level and grinding work of women who worked to improve women’s right to birth control in the 1920s and 30s has gone somewhat unnoticed. Whilst they never marched on parliament, they worked day-in, day-out, through blitz, blackouts and at personal risk, to provide women with the knowledge to exercise control over their own bodies. For many of the women, providing birth control was an important factor for the improvements in women’s health and also the emancipation of women who had previously relied on men to limit the size of their family.
At the turn of the 19th/20th century, birth control was a very controversial issue to discuss in public although in private, many middle/upper-class women had access to such family planning information through their doctors. As such, it was working class women who couldn’t afford to pay for a private doctor who were denied birth control information and who were at the centre of the campaigns for free birth control advice. As Dr Clare Debenham, who has written a thesis entitled ‘Grassroots feminism: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-1938’ which forms the basis of this article, points out, many middle class women felt guilty about this inequality and went on to argue that all women should enjoy control over their own bodies no matter their place in society.
Contraception as Emancipation
The birth controller saw contraception as a form of emancipation for women and the clinics therefore focused on empowering the women by giving them the information, rather than men which was the normal practice at the time. “The clinics were really into female contraception and wanted to give the control to the women rather than having to rely on the men,” explains Clare Debenham. The shocking rate of maternal death also focused women’s minds on the more sinister aspects of withholding birth control information. Between 1911 and 1930, maternal death was second only to tuberculosis as a major cause of death amongst married women, and based on the death rate it was argued giving birth was more dangerous than working in the mines.
In 1924, the Society for the Provision of Birth Control Clinics (SPBCC) was established to campaign for municipal birth control clinics that were free and easily accessible to working class women. In the mean time, voluntary clinics were set up across the country to bridge the gap until their goals were realised. Although the SPBCC and many birth controllers have been overshadowed in the history books by the flamboyant Marie Stopes of Married Love fame, the society was able to set up clinics across the country and provide women with birth control advice.
The SPBCC was also more autonomous and a lot less autocratic and confrontational when compared with Marie Stopes’ clinics. “A lot of the women involved in the birth control clinics, unlike say Marie Stopes, just worked hard with little drama. There was no dramatics,” says Debenham. “If someone had got thrown into jail than maybe we’d know more about it but it was all very low key.”
Manchester & Salford Mothers’ Clinic Opens in 1926
In 1926, the Manchester & Salford Mother Clinic located in Greengate opened and was run by Mary Stocks, Charis Frankenburg and Flora Blumberg. Mary Stocks was a Fabian who saw birth control as strongly linked to a women’s right to self-determination and she also campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar for female teachers in Manchester. Charis Frankenburg, a former midwife, was a Jewish Conservative whose respectable family ran a factory in the area. Flora Blumberg was also a Conservative, which was unusual as most of the support for birth control came from Labour supporters. Even so, motherhood was an inevitable aspect of many women’s experiences at the time so it was an important issue which united many women across political and class divisions.
As Debenham points out, “It was quite odd that there was such Conservative support as most of the people at the clinics would have been Labour supporters but there was a lot of diverse people involved in the birth control issue. I mean Mary Stocks was a Liberal, Charis Frankenburg was a Conservative and the receptionist at the clinic was a Communist! Of course there were occasions when people disagreed but on the local level there really was a cross-section of people involved.”
The clinic was ideally located above a pie-shop which provided an ideal cover for women who wanted to be discreet about their visit to the centre. The clinic was part of the Society for the Promotion of Birth Control and was rather successful – Charis Frankenburg calculated that in their first eight years they had seen over three thousand two hundred patients. In fact, gynaecologist Sir John Peel calculated that by the end of 1927 nine SPBCC birth control clinics had collectively seen 23,000 patients.
Local feminist councillors such as Shena Simon (Liberal) and Cllr Annie Lee (Labour) supported the clinic and there was significant support from the Women’s Co-op Guild, which was made up of a lot of working class women. For example, Mrs Hescott who was the secretary of the Manchester branch of the Women’s Co-op Guild was also a founding member of the clinic. In fact, the WCG overwhelmingly passed a resolution during the 1923 Annual Congress supporting the dissemination of birth control information, making it the first women’s organisation and the first working class organisation to formally support birth control.
“Cursed, Distrusted and Despised”
The clinic in Salford did, however, attract some opposition. As Clare Debenham has written, according to Mary Stocks, the birth controllers were “cursed by the Roman Catholic Church, distrusted by the Church of England and ignored by the medical profession.” In Salford, the clinic faced opposition from the local Catholic church which saw the clinic as a direct challenge to its authority. Dr Henshaw who was enthroned as Bishop in 1925 was quick to denounce the clinic and its methods in the Catholic press: “Horrible things, strange filthy things… The powers of evil have refined their methods and unsavoury subjects are clothed with scientific names… one of these centres had been opened up not far from the Cathedral.” (Article reproduced in the Manchester Guardian (22.3.1926) from the Catholic Federalist cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).
The following month Henshaw was quoted using equally colourful language about the clinic’s methods: ‘Birth control, an abomination in Catholic eyes is infinitely worse than the unnatural vices of Sodom and Gomorrah. Filthy knowledge is not less filthy because it is imparted in a “clinic”, or “centre” (Evening Chronicle (10.4.1926) cited in Debenham, 2010, p125).’
Furthermore, despite the initial support of the Women’s Guild after 1923, “the Guild leadership took no significant initiative on family endowment, birth control, or any other issues of concern to working class women that did not have prior approval of the Labour Party.” (cited in Debenham, 2010, p170). Some feminists were also opposed the birth control campaigns which they saw as a distraction to their cause and felt that talk about such matter involving sexual relations was not respectable.
The backing from the Labour party which the movement had expected or thought it would get also didn’t materialise. “Because it was a controversial topic, many regarded it as a vote loser and so didn’t they didn’t really give it any public support,” explains Debenham. “A lot of the Labour MPs relied on Catholic voters and so they were worried that showing support for birth control would lose them the Catholic vote.”
Legislation and the Future of Birth Control
Legislation was passed in 1930 in the form of a memorandum 153/MCW which allowed birth control advice to be transmitted to women via municipal clinics on the grounds of health. However, the birth controllers quickly realised that this memorandum was quite restrictive (and wasn’t mandatory) and so many continued to keep open their practices to serve women who were not accounted for under the new legislation.
Very few local authorities were willing to take on board the new legislation and by 1931, only 36 authorities had taken advantage of the provisions of the Memorandum. As Debenham states: “If the municipal clinics in 1930 were made compulsory than it would haven been job done for the birth controllers but the fact was that there were only voluntary and a lot of councils didn’t do a single thing to improve birth control after the bill was passed.”
By 1939, only 84 local authorities had taken any action to establish municipal birth control clinics – in other words, two thirds of all local authorities had taken no action at all. In contrast by 1939, the number of voluntary clinics had grown to 66 and so to some extent they were making up for the lack of progress by the local authorities. For example, the success of the Salford clinic meant that in 1933 it had to move to larger premises in Manchester. “I initially thought that after the legislation was passed that it would be the end of the birth control clinic but in fact many carried on and it wasn’t really until 1972 that the work of the clinics was taken on by the department. So until that time it was up to the voluntary sector to provide the service to the women…” remarked Debenham.
It took a long time for attitudes towards contraception and birth control to move on from connotations of being associated with dirty magazines to something which all couples had to deal with and it wasn’t until 1972 that birth control provision became part of the NHS. The early birth control clinics of 1920s and 1930 no doubt played an important role in making birth control more respectable and also bringing the debate into the public sphere. As Debenham declares, “It was local action empowering local people – what the women working in those early birth control clinics did really does deserve a lot more recognition.”
Article by Arwa Aburawa