With some states in America making it much harder for women to get an abortion, allowing women this right only in extreme circumstances, it is a good time to look at the life of an early activist for women’s right to choose.
Stella Browne was a Canadian-born British feminist and social reformer; one of the first women to speak out about the right to abortion, calling for its legalisation at the World Sexual Reform Congress in London in 1929. She campaigned throughout her life for the right of women to have access to methods of birth control and the right to abortion.
Born in 1980 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Stella was brought up in a boarding house for single women, which her mother Dulcie had founded following the death of Stella’s father, it being a condition of her father’s will that Dulcie remained unmarried. This meant that Stella was, from an early age, acutely aware of the challenges faced by the single women with who she shared a home, and of her own mother’s struggles as a single working-woman.
When she was 12 the family left Canada. Thanks to an aunt who was married to a German engineer, Stella was educated first in Germany, becoming fluent in German and French, and then, aged 19 she went on to school in Suffolk before gaining a place at Somervlile College, Oxford, where she studied Modern History. Unusually for the time she graduated with an Honours Degree; most colleges not allowing women to take exams alongside men, only conferring a pass to women undergraduates. This experience undoubtedly had an influence on her expectations of gender equality. On leaving Oxford she worked as a teacher, but her failing health meant that she soon returned to Germany, where her thinking was further influenced by the German women’s rights movement.
In 1907 she moved back to London, taking a position a s librarian at Morley College, where she became actively engaged in lectures on womens reproductive rights and other social issues, joining the Womens Social and Political Union in 1908. In 1912 she engaged in a debate, carried out in through articles and letters to The Freewoman journal, with Kathlyn Oliver, who had argued that single women should remain abstainent to improve their health! Stella argued that, on the contrary, women should not be denied sexual pleasure, whether they were married or not. Stella even wrote to HG Wells, asserting that it was not only men could be promiscuous and that extramarital sex should not to be something that would blacken a woman’s reputation. Further, she believed that the “cult of motherhood … would, if unchecked, diminish the importance of women as individuals and bind them more closely with conventional forms of marriage … [thereby reinforcing] their subordination.”
By the late 1920s Browne began a speaking tour, promoting her views about birth control for women, women’s, sex education and high maternal morbidity rates and she urged women to take matters of their sexuality and their health into their own hands.
In 1929 she presented her lecture “The Right to Abortion” to the World Sexual Reform Congress. In 1931 she began to develop her argument for women’s right to decide to have an abortion and again began touring with her ideas, giving lectures on abortion and of the adverse outcomes for women forced to bring an unwanted pregnancy to full term. In 1936, along with Janet Chance and Alice Jenkins, she formed the Abortion Law Reform Association; an organisation she supported throughout the rest of her life.
In May 1955, the day before her seventy-fifth birthday, she suffered a heart attach and died.
On her death certificate, as one final insult, under the column ‘occupation’ she is noted as being a “Spinster: No occupation.”