Stella and Her Friends

Lesley A Hall

Wellcome Institute

April 1995


(A version with full references is available on request)

Stella Browne (1880-1955) is largely known to women's history as an enthusiastic advocate of birth control, a Communist who resigned from the Party over the question of whether this was a proletarian issue, and a founder of the Abortion Law Reform Association. From Sheila Rowbotham's brief biographical essay A New World for Women (1978) one gets an impression of a woman whose life centred around addressing public meetings, writing articles, and translating the work of continental sexologists.

Stella is virulently attacked by Sheila Jeffreys in The Spinster and Her Enemies (1985) as 'part of a generation who had to twist themselves into knots by rejecting their own experience of loving women'. Stella, according to Jeffreys, was 'forced to redefine or reject' passionate friendships with women 'when [she] adopted the ideology of the male sexologists'. Similar views have been more recently expressed by Margaret Jackson in The Real Facts of Life.

Stella is claimed to have had a 'horror of feminists' leading her to attack what these historians define as an earlier generation of feminists, although Stella herself was in 1920 a 40-year old veteran of the suffrage struggle with the Women's Social and Political Union, and would always have identified herself (indeed, was persistently characterised by contemporaries) as a feminist. Women's interests took priority in all her activities and she also had important relationships with many individual women, writing, for example, to Margaret Sanger that 'It has been a great source of joy and strength to me my dear to think of our friendship... how I wish I could have a really long talk with you', in 1917, that is, around the time of the appearance of her famous Sexual Variety and Variability in Women pamphlet, and a year before she gave her paper on 'Some cases of female inversion' to the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, texts which Jeffreys argues indicate her rejection of the importance of female ties.

A paramount question raised by the case of Stella Browne is how can we identify and indeed, characterise, relationships between women in the past. Stella's own papers do not survive, although we do not lack evidence for her connections with other women. However, there are considerable problems both in finding, and in interpreting, the evidence available.

The papers of women who are known to have been connected in some way with Stella also have not always survived, when they do there may be gaps, even among copious collections: the Margaret Sanger Papers Project in New York has failed to track down any letters from Stella to Sanger any later than 1921, although they must have corresponded up to Stella's final letter breaking off their friendship in 1923--which itself does not survive. The fact that their relationship did end on bad terms can be found in a letter from Stella to Havelock Ellis of 7th June 1923, and I will consider this rupture further on in this paper.

We should also be aware, of course, of the increasing role that the telephone was playing in making arrangements and keeping friends in touch. In 1919 Stella, who on the surviving evidence largely communicated by scrawled notes written 'in haste' instructed the secretary of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology to how to reach her by phone at the office where she was working, suggesting that she did not have one at home. However, in 1936, Stella complained that her sister Sylvia 'refuses utterly to install a telephone' in the flat they were moving into, which seems to imply that by that time Stella was used to having a phone.

Women working as comrades in struggle and living in the same neighbourhood may have had little occasion to write to (or even phone) one another: for example, there are very few letters from Stella to Dora Russell among the extensive papers of the latter now at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. The two of them were Chelsea neighbours in the 1920s and doubtless frequently saw one another at meetings of the local Labour Party and of birth control organisations. However, the Russell papers do include, besides a memorandum by Stella on the best way of instructing poor women in birth control, and the PS to an otherwise lost letter about getting help for a poor woman they knew with a mentally defective son, a horoscope drawn up in her unmistakeable handwriting for Dora's son. This suggests not only some degree of intimacy but a whole new side to these women! There are, however, a few hints, from the birth control periodical The New Generation and in Russell's autobiography The Tamarisk Tree, that there were some tensions between these two even though they were allies in several political struggles.

A lot of the evidence for Stella's friendship networks, it is thus clear, is going to be somewhat indirect. Some details can be gleaned from the records of organisations in which she was active, such as the New Freewoman Company, the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, and the Abortion Law Reform Association, and from mentions of women friends and associates in her correspondence with male friends and co-workers, whose papers do tend to have survived better--though there are identifiable gaps even in her extensive correspondence with Havelock Ellis from 1913 to 1938.

From these somewhat oblique sources it is possible to discover that her web of female friendship was very wide. It included women in Labour politics like Dorothy Jewson, MP for Norwich, literary figures as diverse as Rebecca West, whom Stella had presumably met via The Freewoman, and about whom she wrote to Ellis 'if we two meet again there is going to be some liveliness!', and Ivy Compton-Burnett, who Stella described as 'a sensible highly cultivated middleaged woman who... knows and admires H. Ellis's work', as well as obvious associates in the birth control movement like Bessie Drysdale and Cedar Paul, and in suffrage and sex reform circles, e.g. Edith Lees Ellis (first wife of Havelock).

I have been very struck at how useful one of the most public and obvious sources for finding out about Stella has been. For many years she wrote copiously for the birth control periodical, The Malthusian, renamed The New Generation in 1922. Her initial contributions consisted largely of letters to the editor, but she moved on to review regularly, and throughout the twenties and early thirties wrote articles and notes on a variety of topics, not exclusively birth control. The journals also reported on the great deal of speaking she did on behalf of the birth control movement, predominantly to women's groups and organisations.

In the pages of the New Generation Stella consistently voiced a dynamic enthusiasm for other women working for similar aims. She had 'known and honoured... since 1918' Dorothy Jewson, one of the first women Labour MPs, and praised her 'passionate sympathy and loyalty, strategic breadth of vision, utter contempt for self-advertisement and advantage', and seems to have been a personal friend as well as political admirer. Ellen Wilkinson also won a degree of approbation, although Stella was frequently scathing about those female MPs who, she felt, were neglecting the true interests of women as a whole. But she also expressed vigorous appreciation for what one might call 'ordinary'--though it is clear from the way Stella writes about them they were far from ordinary--women involved in local groups and struggles.

In an article entitled 'Women workers who think' Stella commented that to address Women's Cooperative Guilds or Labour Party women's sections was 'to enjoy a rare treat.' She gave general praise to these women as a group: their 'comparative freedom... from effete formulae in the region of personal conduct', 'their courage, their kindliness, their forbearance.' And she mentioned 'one of the dearest friends I have ever known' as having been a working class woman, mother of thirteen children, twice married, infected with syphilis by her second husband, who, in spite of all these vicissitudes was 'till the day of her death a tower of mental and psychic strength'. For Stella she was 'the shining example of the woman worker who loves and helps and thinks'.

In her reports of meetings and speaking tours Stella was consistently appreciative of the women she met: 'Mrs Evans was the kindest of hostesses and most helpful of guides', 'the ideal chairmanship of Mrs Barnes', and I cannot resist mentioning the charming tribute to 'my guide, philosopher and friend at Tredegar, Iris Phillips (aged six)', particularly notable, perhaps, from a woman who consistently defended women's right to lack maternal feelings.

A comrade of Stella's in the Malthusian League, and later in the Abortion Law Reform Association, was Cicely Hamilton, and they may have met as early as 1907 when Hamilton was secretary of the Chelsea WSPU. Hamilton's recent biographer seems to have been strongly influenced by Sheila Jeffreys' categorisation of her as a 'pro-celibacy' feminist, and apparently finds it hard to conceive, let alone explain, how she could have collaborated with such very anti-celibacy feminists as Stella Browne and Dora Russell during the 1920s in the birth control movement. While there is little evidence to reveal Hamilton's feelings towards Stella, the latter constantly praised Hamilton's courage and judgement in reviews and articles for The New Generation. This may be put down to the need to avoid any appearance of dissension in the ranks of birth control, but the tone of Stella's remarks about Hamilton is very different from that found in her writings about Marie Stopes, where, even when she praised (as in her review of Mother England) she did not hold back from expressing her reservations about certain elements of Stopes's philosophy, and, indeed, personality.

Stella's partiality to, and support for, members of her own sex was not indiscriminate. Her relations with Marie Stopes, the most famous of British birth-controllers, seem to have been somewhat tense from a very early stage. In 1915, well before Stopes published Married Love and Wise Parenthood, she was instrumental in getting up a petition to the President of the United States protesting against the prosecution of Margaret Sanger. Stella was 'rather sick at the way she managed that petition... the number [of names] could easily have been doubled'. While Stella praised Stopes's writings both in print and in correspondence with her she had criticisms of her class-bias and emphasis upon marriage. As Stopes increasingly became a notorious public figure, Stella found her 'quite unbalanced in her egomania and conceit' even while conceding the value of her media circus to publicising the birth control cause. Anyone who has spent much time investigating Marie Stopes will, I think, have some sympathy with Stella's views.

A rather similar combination of political approval and personal distaste seems to characterise Stella's feelings towards Mary Sheepshanks, whom she may have known from when they were both at Oxford (Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall respectively), around the turn of the century. Stella suggested in 1920 that Sheepshanks was 'not at all unsympathetic... to the idea of birth control, and could give... great help and backing'. However, when it was proposed that Stella might join a mutual friend on her holiday in Sheepshanks' house, Stella declared that she could not possibly 'as I... have not since 1912, been on speaking terms with her!!! I got to know her practical methods as distinct from her theoretical principles, rather too well, when I worked as Librarian at Morley College under her Vice-Principalship!'. It was early in 1912 that Stella left the post: was this coincidental?

The whole question of tensions, rivalries, competition and downright enmity between women, even (or perhaps particularly) those working in the same cause, has been brought to my attention during my work on Stella. It is not really shocking to encounter, for example, her attacks on Lady Astor's 'nauseating humbug', or Margot Asquith's 'dense ignorance', or on anti-birth control Labour women such as Dr Ethel Bentham or Marion Phillips. Other women in the birth control movement also found Marie Stopes difficult to work with. The case of Stella's friendship with Margaret Sanger is more complicated. In 1915 Stella wrote to Sanger 'It has been one of the biggest and one of the dearest things in my life to have met and known you' and that 'It is a great comfort to me that you say and know I am with you in your joys and sorrows'.

For the next few years she wrote in a similar positive vein and the two women seem to have been part of a transatlantic network of mutual friends and comrades, female and male. In 1921 Stella wrote with detailed comments on the manuscript of Sanger's The Pivot of Civilisation, and signed herself, 'yours ever lovingly, Stella'. But by early 1923 Stella was writing bitterly to Havelock Ellis about a 'certain phase in [Sanger's] character--which I will admit I had not noticed, or perhaps had not suffered from, before this last bitter but educative year'. Stella was disappointed after 'sickening anxiety, & positive hardship' not to get an editorial job she had expected through Sanger's influence. This doubtless had much to do with the rupture, but Stella also contrasted 'the gallant little rebel of 1914 & 15 with her charm & steadfast courage' with 'the very fashionable, very diplomatic lady of 1922', who had just married the wealthy Noah Slee.

The two women were moving in different worlds, not just geographically but economically and socially, to say nothing of politically. In June 1923 there was a complete rupture, with Stella returning Sanger's purported 'birthday present' of a cheque for $100 with what sounds, from her account to Havelock Ellis, a stinging letter. I find this whole affair particularly ironic given that Stella had publicly fallen out with Marie Stopes in 1922 defending Sanger's priority in recommending the female check pessary.

I should perhaps add that the fleeting references to Stella in Sanger's autobiographical accounts are fairly positive. In My Fight for Birth Control (1932) she referred to 'that intrepid rebel Feminist, Stella Browne' who had introduced her to Havelock Ellis. In Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography (1939), she mentioned that Stella's 'indefatigable vivacity' was 'the same a quarter of a century later': 'something in [her] spirit keeps [her] ever young'. It is always possible that Sanger, while clothing herself in respectability the better to fight for birth control, retained a perhaps nostalgic respect for Stella's more intransigently radical stance. Sanger's correspondence with their colleagues in the birth control movement may reveal further nuances to this breach, which I hope to investigate at a later date.

Another friendship which seems to have ended badly was with a much less well-known figure, indeed one about whom I have been able to find out very little. Janet Carson became paid secretary to the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology in 1919 and there is a considerable mass of letters from Stella (who was on the committee) to her, among the archives of the Society now in Texas. Described in the minutes as 'a well-known suffrage worker', Carson seems to have been associated with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. There were clearly various grounds for political sympathy between the two women: suffrage, pacifism (Stella had been involved in the No-Conscription Fellowship), and enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution. General expressions of approval for Carson's actions as secretary became warmer expressions of friendship, with visits to one another's homes. A faint note of trouble to come surfaced in April 1920 'I think it wd be advisable to take very full notes during Ctee meetings, so as to avoid mistakes'. A few months later Stella wrote 'I think you know that I feel personally a sincere and very warm admiration and affection and respect for you' but, she suggested, other members of the committee 'judge by the correctness of minutes and promptitude in despatch of literature. I do wish I did not feel I ought to say this!'. It becomes increasingly clear from the minutes of the Society, and Stella's correspondence with fellow-committee members, that Carson's work was found unsatisfactory. Stella wrote of her errors and inefficiency 'this sort of thing, even if (if!) there has been no direct dishonesty, is intolerable', and in September 1921 Carson was asked to resign. Unfortunately there is no surviving correspondence between the two women during this critical period. I wonder how far a feeling that incompetence in a woman was letting the side down played a part in generating the hostile note in Stella's letters to the committee.

I turn now to a relationship of Stella's which has been interpreted as one of profound and enduring enmity. During 1912 she and Kathlyn Oliver were the protagonists in the famous epistolary debate in The Freewoman about female sexuality. Oliver, 'an apostle of the practice of self-restraint in sex matters' argued for the naturalness and desirability of female celibacy. Stella, in response, put forward the claims for the existence of, and desirability of satisfying, female sexual desire. While Margaret Jackson in The Real Facts of Life characterises Stella's tone pejoratively as 'patronizing' and 'contempt[uous]', such terms could as readily apply to Oliver's--there were few holds barred on either side. Jackson's suggestion of enduring 'mutual antagonism and personal animosity' cannot be sustained: a few years later, in 1917 Oliver joined the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, proposed for membership by Stella.

It is not clear whether Oliver had, perhaps, been put in touch with Stella by Edward Carpenter, with whom she corresponded in 1915, and discovered her to be less of an immoral monster than she had thought, or whether Stella was one of the supportive women friends assisting Oliver in rethinking her ideas on female sexuality mentioned in that correspondence. It is almost certain that the two women were already acquainted prior to The Freewoman imbroglio. Oliver had been an active participant in the activities of Morley College while Stella was librarian. This may explain why Stella initially used a pseudonym when writing to The Freewoman. On the other hand, perhaps the debate was less spontaneous and more orchestrated than it appears: a formal presentation of particular positions by protagonists engaged in mutual explorations. Tantalising questions, but a far more complex picture than the one that is usually presented.

This study of one very activist woman demonstrates some of the difficulties and some of the rewards of reconstructing women's friendships in the early twentieth century, and some of the problems of interpretation and analysis which arise. I think one point which stands out is the danger of relying on published texts when assigning women to different parties or camps; periodicals and archives tell a denser and much more complex story. Stella has often been classed with Marie Stopes and Dora Russell, and opposed to Kathlyn Oliver and Cicely Hamilton: evidence from The New Generation, and a variety of archival sources, paints an almost antithetical picture. I should also point out that my perhaps undue emphasis on tense or disrupted relationships is due largely to the non-existence of the papers of women--e.g. Dorothy Jewson--whose relations with Stella were more harmonious, while extremely positive statements about many women can be gleaned from her correspondence and New Generation columns, as I have, I hope, indicated, but cannot quote at length on this occasion.


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© Lesley Hall
Last modified 19 Feb 2000