Beyond Notability: Charlotte Stopes

Beyond Notability (BN) is an academic project. Click here to find out more about it.

I have been commissioned to devise & tell four stories about women from the BN database– including their contradictions and complexities. I was expected to undertake some of my own research as well as getting help from the BN team. it’s been fascinating, fun and difficult.

Read about the other stories: Edith Blake / Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson / Alice Gomme

Okay what’s the story?

Charlotte (Carmichael) Stopes was a writer and scholar, who is best known for being the mother of Marie Stopes*. (During her life she was known as a suffrage campaigner and shakespeare scholar.)

Charlotte published poems, learned articles, books and scholarship. She left countless letters and fragments of autobiography. There is a biography of Marie and Charlotte by Dr Stephanie Green.

I was honoured that Dr Green was prepared to virtually meet us from Australia and share her views on Charlotte, based on the research for her book. I was struck by the social and legal obstacles which blocked girls of Charlotte’s generation from school, university and paid work. I was inspired by Charlotte’s energy and intellectual drive, her push to study, learn and bring change for herself and others. Although Charlotte was reputed to be stuffy, bookish and overly-religious, Stephanie’s research shows that she was dynamic, outspoken and passionate.

I settled on my focus for the story, an event in Newcastle- a dramatic address Charlotte gave on Rational Dress for the British Association for the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1889. She was 49 years old, she wore a startling red costume and her talk was reported in over 100 newspapers.

BUT, my lead, Dr Amara Thornton, requested that the story be specifically rooted in Scotland and it MUST use new research from the hand written minutes of the Edinburgh Ladies Debating Society (ELDS)These minutes were from an earlier period in her life and obviously conflicted with my wish to talk about Newcastle! Still, I was curious. Who knows what might be revealed in those old handwritten tomes?

Then, disaster! With a few weeks to go, I fell ill. Travel to Scotland and the archive was out of the question. Luckily my friend, storyteller Niall Moorjani lives in Edinburgh. They have a masters in history and were, thank goodness, happy to go to the archive and scan several volumes of handwritten minutes as well as make some observations of their own.

Back in London, I opened the precious scans. As soon as I got used to the copperplate scrawl, I became absorbed in a long-lost world. The ELDS was, in some ways, almost like a church with a passionate and growing community. These were (mostly unmarried) wormen who seemed addicted to the uniquely female buzz of comradeship, study, socialising and debate. So far, so idylic.

However, Niall spotted that Louisa Dundas was a frequent attendee at ELDS and commented:

“(Louisa’s grandfather) Henry Dundas is infamous in Edinburgh for having delayed the abolition of the slave trade whilst he was an MP. His son, Louisa’s father, was high ranking member of the British Admiralty and her brother fought in India in the Anglo-Sikh war in the late 1840s and was made a general for doing so, her brother was also an MP in the 1830’s.”

I also found uncomfortable content in the minutes. For example, I saw that ELDS considered debating “Should evidence given by an infidel be considered in a court of Law?”. Later on, Charlotte herself voted ‘yes’ to the question “Were the southern states justifiable in ceding from the Union?”

These things, alongside my other research, informed my understanding of Charlotte Stopes.

After some thought, I decided to set my tale in 1889 and zoom in on the morning before her Rational Dress speech in Newcastle. I had her putting on item after item of rational clothing while remembering moments from her life. I wanted to show that she could only give her celebrated address because of her life experiences in Edinburgh. I hope that, in telling that story, I have also been able to give an impression of the intellegent, driven, complex but not always appealing character that we uncovered with our research.

Our story subjects are not heroines. Charlotte Stopes belived women should have the vote (so long as they were not married) she belived in Rational Dress so long as it was modest. The minutes show us that the ELDS, which she attended regularly for years, was full of views on race and religion which are not acceptable.

Charlotte also fought for the rights of women to study, speak and undertake properly paid work. She married a man eleven years younger than her. One of her daughters was a celebrated doctor, the other child had a disability and needed life-long care. Charlotte Stopes is often remembered as a staid, grumpy, half-blind old lady but I hope my story can show the human being underneath the stereotype is far from dull.

*NB Marie Stopes was a birth control pioneer. in 2020, MSI charity broke its connection to Stopes due to Marie’s support of Eugenics.

You can hear my story on 8th March at this event.

Read about the other stories: Edith Blake / Jessie Mothersole and Elizabeth Hodgson / Alice Gomme

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