In 1937, the middle-aged "Miss" Stella Browne, when giving evidence to the UK Government's Interdepartmental Committee on Abortion, delivered a thunderbolt - she told the committee that she knew from personal experience that abortion was not necessarily fatal or injurious. No record was made of the horrified silence with which such a personal statement must have been greeted. Abortion was illegal and certainly not something that a "respectable" unmarried, educated woman would need to resort to. But Stella Browne (1880-1955), a passionate advocate of birth control, legalised abortion and greater sexual freedom for women, was no shrinking violet. In this first full-length biography of a fearless pioneer, Lesley Hall has painstakingly trawled archives in the UK, North America and Europe to draw a fascinating portrait of a complex, lively woman.
Born in Canada, Browne moved with her mother and sister to Europe after her father died, finally settling in England. Fluent in French and German, the bright, energetic young scholar won a place to study history at Somerville College, Oxford, graduating in 1902. It was about this time that she met the man she first cared for in what she described as "such an insane and unsatisfied way". A number of male lovers were to follow, both long-term and occasional. Comments in her writings also point to the possibility of emotional entanglements with women. This attraction to both men and women became a pattern in her life - and informed her writings on sexuality.
Browne was inevitably drawn into the social reform movements of her day. She became a militant suffragette and by 1911 described herself as "a Socialist and 'extreme' Left-Wing feminist". Living the free love she advocated, she also began to write about sexuality, initially in the form of anonymous letters published in the subversive feminist journal The Freewoman.
Utilising the pioneering work of Havelock Ellis and other continental sexologists, in 1915 she wrote the first version of her important paper "The sexual variety and variability of women and their bearing on social reconstruction". She was probably the first British woman to speak publicly on lesbianism, and also advanced the view, considered shocking at the time, that women had the inalienable right to refuse maternity.
Over the coming decades, the high-spirited, indefatigable Browne became known as a speaker and writer on birth control and abortion, co-founding the Abortion Law Reform Association. Yet she rarely held a permanent job, instead scratching out a living on the fringes of the literary world, mainly as a reviewer and translator. She developed close friendships with Edward Carpenter, a pioneer for the rights of homosexuals and a founder of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (in which she became active); with Margaret Sanger, the radical American feminist and birth control advocate; and with Edith Lees Ellis, the lesbian wife of Havelock.
Browne's radical ideas, informed by her feminist conviction that major social and political change was necessary if women were to be considered equals with men, profoundly challenged the social mores of the time. She died some 12 years before the 1967 Act that would make abortion legal under certain circumstances, although it did not give women the absolute right over their own bodies for which she had argued.
Hall paints a vivid picture of this indomitable, trailblazing pioneer of legalised safe abortion. In so doing, she adds considerably to our knowledge about the sex reform movement in the first half of 20th-century Britain - and the critical place of Browne within it.
The Life and Times of Stella Browne: Feminist and Free Spirit
By Lesley A. Hall. I.B. Tauris, 304pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781848855830. Published 14 March 2011