Desperately seeking Stella: the pleasures and problems of doing women's biography
Lesley Hall
Jan 1996 (London Women's History Network meeting)


Rather appositely, I read this week in the Newsletter of the New DNB Project, which is very concerned to redress the gender imbalance of the existing DNB, about the problems they are experiencing in preparing entries on women.

Nevertheless, it is often possible, with the expense of some effort and at the cost of some disappointment and frustration, to find out a considerable amount about women who, if not quite 'ordinary' private women, appear in the historical record as secondary presences and supporting characters in the lives of other women or the accounts of the movements they were involved in. Excavating the life of one such woman sheds light on her associates and members of the same networks and may also illuminate the unrecorded lives of contemporaries who, perhaps, similarly did not fit entirely comfortably into conventional expectations of what a woman's life should be.

Stella Browne is a not perhaps very well-known figure but she crops up as a character of some interest in early twentieth century feminist debates on sexuality, the British birth control movement in the interwar years, women's struggles within the Labour Party during the same period, and of course, in the abortion law reform movement. She was one of the founders of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936, the culmination of two decades of activism in which she had, almost alone, spoken out for safe abortion as a necessary element in contraceptive provision, itself a far from respectable cause.

I have discovered a very much more complex, rounded and interesting figure than this may suggest--rushing out to meetings and sitting on committees, proposing resolutions, and so forth. The way women get slotted into categories--activist, artist, bohemian, and so on--tends to constrict the multiplicity of their lives and cut off possible biographical leads, and we should think about the things which get left out because they don't fit the picture. For example, Stella's work as a translator of continental sexological texts is relatively well-known; less well-known is her work translating the poems of Otto Braun, and I am still gathering up her uncollected translations of French and German poets published in various places. She also wrote poems herself, mostly on themes such as 'Red Russia' and 'To the White Eagle of Poland', published in The Call--paper of the British Socialist Party.

Coming to work on Stella was the outcome of a long process. We first made contact, as it were, via the ALRA archive in CMAC (one of earliest collections I worked on there). I read Rowbotham's book A New World for Women: Stella Browne, socialist feminist (but I think later). Before I knew I was going to work on Stella I was already gathering material--e.g. a copy of her Sexual Variety and Variability pamphlet when looking at Marie Stopes's collection of ephemera in the BL Official Publications Library, when I was doing my thesis on male sexuality, to which this was perhaps a little peripheral! Then later when I was working on The Facts of Life, Anne Summers mentioned to me Stella's letters to Havelock Ellis, and while delving in the BSSSP archives in Texas I took copious notes from Stella's correspondence and about her.

I was thus already interested in her, and inclined to believe that the rather bad press she had in the works of e.g. Sheila Jeffreys, and more recently Margaret Jackson, rather misrepresented her. A good deal of primary source material had surfaced which had not been available when Sheila Rowbotham was writing about her. Thus I came to realise that I was interested in doing a study focusing on Stella herself. There was a major problem: none of Stella's own papers appear to survive. However, besides writings scattered over a wide variety of periodicals, there are records of her activities in the archives of various bodies she belonged to, and letters of hers can be traced among the papers of a number of individuals she was involved with, as well as mentions of her in letters between her associates. However, many potentially useful archives do not survive, and there are obvious gaps even in the relatively extensive and well-preserved Havelock Ellis and Margaret Sanger papers. My profession of archivist and my previous academic work on history of sexuality are rather useful backgrounds--which had, after all, led me in Stella's direction--for writing this biography, a new departure as far as I am concerned.

I have already uncovered far too much for easy compression into a short paper except by resorting to a very dry chronological narrative, which was not what I was interested in doing and which I doubted would much interest anyone else. I am therefore going to deal firstly with what I have managed to dig up about the years previous to Stella's thirty-second, which was when she burst upon the world of public debate in the columns of The Freewoman, demonstrating what one can find out, given a few leads, about an obscure person. I shall then describe some specific problems I have encountered in building up a picture of her life and work, as well as the happy and unexpected things that I have found out. Perhaps some of the issues which I have had perforce to omit will come up in discussion.

The reason most biographies begin with a chapter on the antecedents of their subject is, it seems to me, because this can be, in many ways, the easiest bit of the research. Vital records are public records. Even apparently dry official documents, such as death certificates, can provide useful information: Stella's gave her address at the time of her death, what she died of, her age, the fact that she was living with her sister, who registered the event, and that her father had been a retired officer in the Royal Navy. This latter does not necessarily appear on a death certificate: under occupation, Sylvia Browne had entered, 'spinster, daughter of Daniel Marshall Browne, Commander, RN', something I found wildly ironic for a feminist subverter of the patriarchal system. (Sylvia also exaggerated Daniel Browne's rank--he never rose to Commander, and in fact at the time of his death had transferred to the Canadian Marine).

I endeavoured to track down surviving relatives. Stella herself did not leave a will, but Sylvia did: though it did not mention family papers, it did name various relatives to whom Sylvia left legacies. Eventually I managed to contact a maternal cousin of the Brownes who had some slight memories of Sylvia--who had kept house for his father, a general practitioner in South London--but hardly any at all of Stella. Although there were no papers (except a photo and a few letters from Sylvia), there was a pedigree of the Dodwell family which proved invaluable.

One of the few vital facts already known about Stella was that she was born in Canada. If the age on the death certificate was correct, this was in 1880. Canada is very large, at that time there was no central registration, and the provincial records have seldom survived. Fortunately, Dodwell family information indicated that Stella was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was possible to establish her date of birth, the date of her parents' marriage, the fact that it was her father's second marriage and that she had a half-sister, the address they lived at, the account of Daniel Marshall Browne's drowning while on duty when Stella was 3, the provisions of his will and the valuation of the estate. So she was brought up in a single-parent family (her mother did not remarry).

The next known event in Stella's life was her education at Somerville College, Oxford. The information in the college records was sparse, but provided details of her previous education and some of her subsequent occupations, as well as the actual years (1899-1902) and subject (Modern History) of her study and her degree (II:i) (or equivalent of the degree she would have got had women been admitted to degrees at Oxford at that time). However, although there is information about Stella's short period at St Felix School, Suffolk, a pioneering establishment for female education, and her brief career in teaching after graduation, there are blank spots. In 1899 when Stella went to Somerville her named guardian in England (although her mother was still alive) was her aunt, Mrs Siemens, the wife of Sir Alexander Siemens, an eminent member of the Anglo-German electrical engineering dynasty. Her mother, Anna Dulcibella May Browne, may have remained in Nova Scotia. However, Stella is described in the Somerville register as being at 'home, Germany' in 1904, following the breakdown of her health under the strain and privation of teaching. Siemens connections may have provided hospitality in Germany to the widow Browne and Stella may have joined her on more than one occasion, but the evidence is scant.

From Stella's writings of a later period, it seems probable that she had contact with German feminist circles of the early twentieth century, in particular such radical pioneers as Helene Stocker, and it may well have been this which influenced the particular campaigns into which Stella's feminist activities would be mainly directed. At that time the German feminist movement was perhaps less concerned than the British with questions of political rights and was far more explicitly and articulately focused on issues of marriage, motherhood and sexuality, although Stella did not eschew political activity of the more conventional kind.

She was certainly back in England by 1906 or 7. She worked for some time as a researcher on the Victoria County History--no details forthcoming except the very brief mention in the Somerville records--and in 1907 became Librarian at Morley College, the adult education institution in South London with which many famous names were associated. The Librarian's post had been offered shortly before then by the Vice-Principal (and effective Director) Mary Sheepshanks, to Virginia Stephen, much better known of course under her married name of Woolf, who taught English Literature at Morley. Around the same time Stella joined the Women's Social and Political Union, or, at least, lists of members in its annual reports show a Miss S Browne in 1908, a Mrs Stella Browne in 1909 and a Miss Stella Browne from 1910 to 1912. A Miss Browne appears in 1913 but there is no variant of the name after that. Given comments by Stella in later years about 'spiritual arrogance' in the suffrage movement she may have taken exception (as many committed fighters for the suffrage did) to the increasing Pankhurst autocracy.

Stella's sexual activities during this period were the subject of a retrospective account to Havelock Ellis. She wrote to him in December 1914 that 'I feel very much honoured that you should think my "case" might be helpful and worth recording. I will write it out rather more fully & send it you sometime', but this does not seem to survive, nor does the 'short account I have already given you' she mentioned. She alluded to 'the man I first cared for in such an insane and unsatisfied way' but gave no details. However, in a letter of December she mentioned 'the man who was my demi-semi-lover from 1907 to 1910, & my--well shall I say technically complete, though very intermittent and occasional--lover from 1910 on'.

It is probably appropriate to mention at this point that Stella was living in Chelsea with her mother and sister, but nonetheless seems to have been enjoying a relatively fulfilled sexual life. Perhaps we should rethink the idea that emancipation necessarily had anything to do with leaving home--after all Rebecca West also managed to initiate her affair with H G Wells while still living at home with mother and sisters. Depending on the circumstances, tolerant or easily deceived relatives, and a latchkey, might have been preferable to a snooping or censorious landlady. West in the journalism collected by Jane Marcus in The Young Rebecca mentioned the cramping restrictions placed upon women who wished to keep a respectable roof over their heads.

So it has been possible to excavate quite a bit of detail of the life of someone who was at the time, a private rather than public person. Questions already emerge from the kind of life Stella was leading about lives of educated women at this period--the work they were doing, the political activities they were engaging in, the love-affairs they had.

The mention of West brings me to the point at which Stella entered the public arena: participating in the much discussed debates on female chastity in the pages of the Freewoman, which I shall not describe in detail, referring you to Lucy Bland's account in Banishing the Beast. Stella's tone in these letters was assured and confident, making no apology for the extreme daring of her contentions. It is probably worth reiterating that Stella was by no means saying that all women should rush off and have sexual relationships with men. Already, at that stage, she was quite convinced that women were immensely various and that it did them no real service to assume that they were all alike in their needs and desires; both celibacy and relations with other women were legitimate choices. For Stella, however, the critical issue was free rather than forced choice.

She also participated in the discussion circles set up as a result of these debates. Following Dr Drysdale's address on 'Malthusianism' (birth control), Stella made what is her first recorded statement about abortion, stating that

medical men received dozens of letters from frantic girls anxious to procure abortion, and if their humanity led them to comply, they were faced with ruin and penal servitude.... instruction in the means of prevention was the only method of avoiding this terrible dilemma. She contended that women should have the right to decide what children they should have.

Early in 1912 Stella left Morley College. This leads to one of the major mysteries of her life: how on earth she managed to keep body and soul together and a roof over her head. The family was not well-off: the evidence of Daniel Marshall Browne's will suggests this, though there may have been some kind of naval pension and possibly support from the Dodwell family. Stella tried to make a living at various kinds of sub-literary hackwork--reviewing, translating, indexing, etc. She had some reviews published in the English Review and the New Statesman, though these were anonymous and it has only proved possible to identify certain specific reviews she mentioned in correspondence, and also in the International Journal of Ethics. This was edited at one point by Margaret Jourdain, the life-time companion of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett--Stella described the latter as 'a sensible highly cultivated middleaged woman who... knows and admires H[avelock] Ellis's work' and sought to persuade her to join the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology.

Stella once referred to the rewards of translation as 'sweated wages' although she seems to have been extremely competent: the Dutch sexologist Van de Velde praised her work on his books and her English version of Max Hodann's History of Modern Morals was widely commended. However, much translation must have been dull routine. Around 1917-18 she was trying to develop a career in journalism: she had several articles published in the British edition of the American journal, Health and Beauty, and wrote to Marie Stopes asking for an introduction to the Duchess of Marlborough, for an article on the latter's work with babies for the American women's magazine The Designer. This project does not seem to have come to fruition.

Meanwhile Stella also had to take waged work, although this may have had some relation to her refusal to undertake war work. Around 1915 or 16 she apparently had some sort of position in the editorial office of the medical journal The Lancet, while in the autumn of 1917 she went to work at a co-educational experimental school in Essex. Very shortly afterwards (by late summer 1918) she was employed as a temporary indexer at the National Federation of Women Workers, where she first met Dorothy Jewson, one of the first Labour women MPs, who became a strong ally of Stella's in the birth control struggle and as far as one can tell, since her papers do not survive, a good friend. Early in 1919 Stella was employed in the Petrol Control Office, but in 1920 was at the Ministry of Health Insurance Department in Maida Vale, which she described as 'The House of Bondage'. (She also frequently referred to the Ministry of Health as the 'Ministry of Disease').

She resigned this latter post early in 1922, and wrote to Havelock Ellis 'I have not yet received any 'benefit' (at 12/- a week) though attending at the "employment"!! Exchange 3 times a week (& a damned nuisance it is!) because I had the audacity to resign, instead of waiting like a sheep till I was quite broken & flung on the scrapheap'. In the same letter she indicated that a lodger had been assisting with the rent of her Chelsea flat, but had to leave. In April 1922 she got work canvassing and reviewing for The New Generation (formerly The Malthusian), but this does not seem to have been permanent, since in March 1923 she wrote to the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology explaining her reluctance to undertake certain tasks: 'I have been out of regular employment... since end of August: my occasional writing and speaking jobs are few far between and badly paid: I am not getting "Benefit"; and I find in these circumstances that I can no longer give my time and minor expenses'.

This period, late 1922 to mid 1923, appears to have been a difficult time for Stella. It was around then that she quit the Communist Party over the birth control issue, though she remained extremely left-wing in her views. She was in hopes of gaining through Margaret Sanger's patronage the position of European representative of the American Birth Control Review, at a point when she was in, as she told Ellis 'urgent need of opportunity, & of an adequate regular salary.' She complained that 'The weeks & weeks this autumn during which I waited in sickening anxiety, & positive hardship, for the news I trusted to receive of a part-time job that I could at least rely on... have left their mark on me--& so has [Sanger's] neglect to reply to my letters.' This neglect must have been particularly galling coming as it did when Stella was publicly fighting Sanger's corner, both against Marie Stopes's distortions of the record over priority in advocating the female contraceptive pessary, and in the trial for obscenity of Guy Aldred and Rose Witcop for publishing Sanger's pamphlet on Family Limitation. There was a final, bitter, break with Sanger in the summer of 1923. However, by the autumn Stella was writing a good deal in the New Generation: news reports on the birth control struggle, reviews, and accounts of meetings. She was also giving several talks a month, mainly to women's groups, under the auspices of the New Generation, formerly Malthusian, League, though I can't believe that this paid very much.

And how Stella was supporting herself after this, apart from journalism in periodicals such as The New Generation and the New York Medical Critic and Guide, surely less rewarding in monetary terms than in the satisfaction of supporting causes she was passionately concerned about, and speaking engagements, I really don't know. Especially after about 1934 when her contributions to the New Generation dropped off considerably. Several important and well-received sexological translations by her were published from 1928 to 1936, but again, these were likely to have been labours of love and conviction rather than profitable enterprises. The letters she got published in a wide variety of periodicals might occasionally have generated an odd guinea but their purpose was primarily to promote the causes she lived for.

This uncertain life would have been stressful for anyone, but Stella's health was not robust. Her letters mention a constant stream of colds, flu, chills, hayfever, conjunctivitis, gastritis, enteritis, indigestion and threatened pleurisy, scalds, and feeling generally 'seedy'. She also had some kind of heart-trouble which caused her upon one occasion to faint during a meeting of the Bibliographic Committee of the BSSSP. She was presumably, sometime during the 1920s or early 30s, undergoing menopause: it is perhaps significant that one of the specific topics in her popular talks to women's groups on health issues (some groups had her back several times), was the special hygienic requirements of women during the climacteric.

Unlike Marie Stopes, who is famed for having written her popular marriage advice manual Married Love while still a virgin, Stella tended to write and speak from her own direct experiences. Passages in her writings, especially Sexual Variety and Variability Among Women, present as anonymised case material episodes and emotions of her own described in correspondence. This use of herself as data has led me to identify one of the examples cited in Stella's memorandum to the Birkett Interdepartmental Committee on Abortion in 1937 with a fair degree of certainty as herself. She was 'past the climacteric' and

after a delicate childhood and a difficult adolescence, her health has steadily improved throughout an intellectually and sexually active life. She has borne no children, but has had at least three early terminations of pregnancy. She has suffered neither peritonitis nor septicaemia nor melancholia as a result.

In her interview by the Committee, Stella informed them 'as a matter of public duty' that she had 'in my own person the knowledge that if abortion were necessarily fatal or injurious, I should not now be here before you.'

This brings me to Stella's sex-life. I have found useful in thinking about Stella's attitudes towards her own sexuality Carolyn Heilbrun's comments in Writing a Woman's Life about an apparently very different contemporary woman, Dorothy Sayers. Heilbrun implies very strongly that Sayers perceived herself as a sexual subject, someone who experienced desire and wanted to achieve orgasmic satisfaction, rather than as a sexual object. This seemed to me to have resonances with the way Stella wrote about sex and her own experiences: she didn't talk about men desiring her but about herself desiring them. So while she was undoubtedly an unabashed heterosexual, she was following a very different model from that which was being put forward even by such an advocate of women's sexual rights as Marie Stopes: Stopes's women were recommended to be coy nymphs maintaining an air of elusive mystery, waiting for men to arouse and satisfy their desires.

Stella was not dependent upon men: she seems, from her remark in her letter to Ellis of December 1922 that 'love is the sauce [as in relish] of life, but every love has its limitations', to have regarded love affairs as an important pleasure but not, perhaps, as central to her life as her work for reform was. In the context of a discussion, provoked by the news of Margaret Sanger's marriage to Noah Slee, of what the 'nervous sensitive mentally active working woman' needed in a man she suggested that 'splendid physical vitality and virility [are]...just as necessary in a sex partner... as ideal & intellectual sympathy' and found that

the modern "intellectual" type of man is getting too nervously irritable & sexually disintegrated... the very nervous sensitiveness & sympathy which make such a man an understanding friend, tend to deprive him... of the aggressive warm lifequickening ardor and dash and aggressiveness that are so intoxicating.

She advocated as a solution 'instructed, economically secure, decently tolerated variety for both sexes', though for her variety always implied discrimination rather than promiscuity. According to her 'since 1915--quite apart from three very slight occasional & mainly physical episodes--I have been twice passionately in love with other men', besides the man with whom she had been involved since 1907.

There are grounds for arguing that Stella was less exclusive in her sexual orientation than is commonly imagined. And I don't mean by this what Sheila Jeffreys suggested in The Spinster and Her Enemies, that Stella had feelings towards women of which she was in defensive denial. Jeffreys--who in her discussion of the subject tends to conflate the very different positions of Stella and Marie Stopes--claims that they were 'forced to redefine or reject' passionate friendships with women and 'twist[ed] themselves into knots by rejecting their own experience of loving women'. I will say nothing of her assumptions that either Stella or Stopes were blank slates uncritically being over-written by 'male sexology' (itself a rather questionable construct).

Stella's own remarks, published and unpublished, about other women--Rebecca West, Sanger before their falling out, Dorothy Jewson to name but three--were not merely expressions of admiration for comrades in struggle but contain warm, even passionate, appreciation of their personal and physical qualities. There's certainly an extremely warm note in her early letters to Sanger and in her remarks about Sanger to Ellis and others and the very bitterness of the break in 1923 suggests deep feelings. Stella hinted in Sexual Variety and Variability at the presence of an erotic tinge in certain friendships between otherwise heterosexual women, and in her paper on Female Inversion, she actually mentioned 'episodical homosexuality on the part of women who are normally much more attracted to men', quite distinct from the social pressures she described on women of 'strong passions and fine brains to find an emotional outlet with other women'. Additionally, in her review of the 1917 edition of Ellis's Sexual Inversion, she argued against his contention that in bisexual women it was the 'inverted element' which predominated. Given Stella's tendency to use her own experience as the basis for argument this may suggest that she herself, while identifying as heterosexual, or at least recognising powerful attraction to men, nevertheless had relationships with women.

Quite apart from any personal inclinations, Stella was strongly of the opinion that the 'homosexual impulse' while 'not in any way superior to the normal... has a fully equal right to existence and expression, it is no worse, no lower.' She was a vigorous proponent of the right of both female and male homosexuals to lead their lives as they wished: and in the case of lesbians she even argued for their right to fulfil their maternal urges, though it's not exactly clear whether by the advances of science which would enable this she meant artificial insemination, or whether she believed that viable parthogenesis was just around the corner. Her very far from hostile attitude towards love between women is perhaps best illuminated by a sentence in the rather unlikely context of her 1935 essay on Abortion, in which she placed love for another woman alongside love for a man, or 'the creative call of work', as factors potentially more compelling to many women than maternity.

A few final points about Stella and sex. Masturbation: she not only argued that it did no harm, she seems to have regarded it as a reasonable expedient for women without partners. What I have not managed to do yet is definitively identify who her lovers were. The one who inspired her comments on the shortcomings of the modern intellectual man may have been Bertram Lloyd, a comrade of hers in several fields: the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, suffrage, socialism, pacifism and humanitarianism. But that is nothing more than a guess.

There is quite a bit to be said about Stella and politics (though the story of her activities in the Chelsea Labour Party is proving hard to unravel since its papers do not survive) and Stella and pacifism, but I should like to move to a rather different aspect. Stella was--presumably--a historical materialist, a socialist, one of the first members of the British Communist Party, a fighter for very practical remedies for women's problems: one need only read the recommendations of her 1917 paper on 'Women and Birth Control' in which she argued for concrete reforms in housing, agriculture, the fiscal system, education, health and divorce law alongside the need for the suffrage and birth control provision.

She was also into astrology, made passing allusions to various 'psychic' abilities and phenomena in herself and others, and on at least two occasions explained how birth control was perfectly capable of reconciliation with reincarnation. She sprinkled her private and public writings with allusions to individuals' zodiacal signs (attributing her own 'strong "red rag" temperamentally' to 'Mars in Mid-heaven aspecting every other planet!', and in her obituary of Winifred Holtby describing her 'Sagittarian gaiety and good fellowship') but also drew up horoscopes for Rebecca West, Dora Russell's newly born son, and presumably others. She even wrote to the journal Modern Astrology with what seems to the uninitiate a rather abstruse technical enquiry.

Stella did not conform to Carolyn Heilbrun's model, suggested in Writing a Woman's Life, that women grow more radical as they age. She burst out on her first appearance in 1912 in The Freewoman with about as radical a point of view on female sexuality as one could ever imagine being voiced at that period. She fought for birth control when it was a stigmatised cause and once the main battle had been won, with the concession that contraceptive advice might be given in local authority clinics, she moved on to intensify her efforts for the legalisation of safe abortion, which she continued to fight for until her death.

During the 1950s, in spite of the trough into which this campaign had fallen, Stella does not seem to have been discouraged. Living in Liverpool with her sister Sylvia (whom I don't think she found altogether congenial) she wrote to her fellow-campaigner Alice Jenkins in 1953 But surely you did not expect us to win in the first round?? My goodness! when I remember the fights for Contraception, even in my time, long after the mid-nineteenth century initial struggles--not to mention the first years after a public demand for legalized abortion by qualified persons.--! also, the fights for suffrage, divorce reform, etc.

Until shortly before her death, when her sight began to fail and rheumatism restricted her mobility, Stella remained active and in touch with events.

Why, with her energy and commitment, and considerable capacity to express herself in writing, didn't she achieve more? Her writings are scattered and were very largely generated by specific current events (I am hoping to bring together some of them in an edited volume). She certainly thought of writing a book. But her need to support herself, and her tireless campaigning, must have not only taken up much of her time but drained her energies: and, we must recall, she did not enjoy the best of health. However, this pressure of work, of the need to earn, of health problems, could be said of many women who nevertheless managed to produce more substantial work than Stella. I would like to make a very tentative suggestion that her courageous and principled singleness and independence deprived her of the emotional and practical support a domestic partner might have provided. Also, I am increasingly getting the sense that Stella was not--unlike some of her contemporaries in the birth control movement--a pushy self-aggrandising egomaniac, that she was, however courageous in vociferously advancing unpopular causes, at some level quite self-effacing--for example (unlike Marie Stopes) not intervening in debates if she felt the case was already being adequately represented. There are a few somewhat obscure references to her being 'neurotic', which could mean anything or nothing, and may just be the 1920s psychologised way of referring to eccentricity--or the way the non-privileged eccentric gets pathologised.

Having said that, I want to conclude with the suggestion that, for someone with all her disadvantages of sex, economic status, health etc, Stella nevertheless actually managed to achieve a remarkable amount, and that, in spite of mysteries which will always remain, a good deal about her life, achievements and opinions can be discovered.


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© Lesley Hall
Last modified 19 Feb 2000