A Brief History

Mena is a SOAS graduate in History & Law. She is currently working with young people with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties and training to become a counsellor. She writes in her spare time, as a way of trying to unpick the logic of our confused times as well as trying to find a narrative thread that can guide our society towards a kinder space.

The woman is intrinsically dangerous to the established order of things. Based on Darwinian notions of survival of the fittest, British society has inbuilt mechanisms to ensure the proliferation of its favoured elements. The woman, as mother, is at the centre of this process. From the moment she begins to engage romantically with men, the woman is controlled and monitored; this is deemed to her own benefit lest she slip up left to her own choices. As the vehicle for the next generation, who the woman frequents, who she marries, how she dresses, where she works, how much she works, how she behaves whilst pregnant, and how she raises her child, all pose a potential threat to the future of our species when we adopt a biological approach to healthy human life, based around the preservation of certain social groups.

Eugenics as a science entered the mainstream in the late 19th century. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, expanded on his cousin’s ideas of survival of the fittest and developed a scientific theory which fitted the era of industrialization and empire like a glove – that of superior human genetics, and the need to ensure the survival of society’s fittest. Galton had found a science to confirm 19th century social thinking, rendering colonization, the class system, and the subservience of women a scientific necessity. He and fellow eugenicists believed that, rather than let nature run its course to the detriment of humanity, human intervention was a necessary guiding force in the shaping of future generations. He coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883, from the Greek word “well-born”, accounting for a science that had little regard for who actually did survive, rather devoted to deciding who should survive. His theory was prompted by Darwin’s chapter on domestic animals, “The question was then forced upon me. Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?”. Eugenics spawned decades of scientific research on the biological inferiority of races, women and social classes that influenced government policy, economic and social thinking for the next century.

Galton was of the opinion that “women tend in all their capacities to be inferior to men”. He viewed the woman as a “breeder”, central to the healthy development of the species. Many public figures adhered to this movement, including early feminists. Caleb Saleeby was an advocate for feminists in the eugenics movement, viewing feminism without eugenics as potentially “ruinous to the race”. He expanded on Galton’s concepts in the early 20th century, discarding Galton’s notion of women as “breeders” preferring to position the woman as “nature’s supreme organ of the future”, in this Saleeby hoped that women could become agents of reproduction and would be able to develop what he termed “eugenic feminism”. Indeed his wishes were granted, and early feminists took easily to ideas of ‘rational reproduction’ that were in keeping with social and racial thinking at the time, this provided a consistent narrative around which they could begin to position themselves as citizens. For unlike other rights which could be compared and contrasted with those of men, reproductive and sexual rights were the easy argument back into the kitchen, and as such, for many early feminists it was an imperative to find a narrative that regulated women’s sexual and reproductive rights as well. In this way eugenics came to find itself entangled in women’s views on reproduction, motherhood, and the state, and narratives of strength, weakness, and worthiness came to enter the feminist sphere.

One of the most prominent figures of the early feminist movement was Marie Stopes, founder of the first birth control centre in the UK in 1921, Stopes was a fervent believer in eugenics and was opposed to contraception and abortion, preferring the avoidance of conception altogether. Marie Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress as well as the magazine Birth Control News promoting a eugenic agenda. Stopes wrote in 1920, “I would legislate compulsory sterilization of the insane, feeble minded… revolutionaries… half castes”. Stopes sent love poetry to Hitler for the ‘German youth’ at the height of his campaigns, and wrote passionately on the theme of ‘racial purity’. Her views on the woman were adopted by female labour politicians who chose to sideline her more contentious ideas, in such great need of a rallying call for women’s rights they began the process of obfuscation we are still enduring today.

The progressive nature of a large part of Stopes’ views is undeniable, particularly her insistence upon the enjoyment of sex by women in equal measure to men; however given the ideological underpinning to her thinking their impact was one of social engineering. The modern offspring of her organisation in the UK empowers women to be proactive with regards to contraception and sexual education, as well as giving access to abortion. The history of the organisation does not, and cannot detract from the importance of women’s control over their reproductive health, however any attempt to downplay of the centrality of her eugenic views to her thinking means that we whitewash a large part of feminist history. If the core thinking behind birth control was to rid society of ‘undesirables’, of the children of immigrants, of the disabled and the mentally ill, then it is vital that this history is openly analysed and discussed as well as our current thinking on how we ‘manage’ our fertility and as such our population. It is clear that this remains a sorely underexplored area of feminist thought, without further exploration of which there can be no universal ‘feminist’ success.

Marie Stopes was not alone in her time, Margaret Pyke was another huge figure in family planning in the UK and another fervent eugenicist. Eugenics dominated national conversation around the development of society for the following decades, and was at the root of left and right wing thinking about the state – indeed to the early proponents of the welfare state such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Bertrand Russell, William Beveridge, J.M. Keynes and H.G. Wells eugenic thinking was at the heart of their theory as the meeting point between the individual and the ‘collective’. It was only when a certain Adolf Hitler took a bit too keenly to these ideas that it was no longer acceptable to speak of eugenics, and the conversation shifted to the notion of ‘population control’ that we find recurrent in discourse today.

This process was not limited to Britain, Americans took quickly to eugenic ideas and were hearty in their application; Scandinavian welfare states were rooted in eugenic theory and government sponsored mass forced sterilization programmes have been widespread the world over throughout the course of the 20th century, from Puerto Rico, to Japan, via Peru. The concerning fact of our day is that eugenic notions have found new expression with the advent of international women’s health organisations, many of which actively support sterilisation programmes aimed at the poorest in society. The woman has become a convenient vehicle for a new form of apparently benevolent imperialism through social embetterment. These organisations, by virtue of their scientific character are often favoured for their practical approach to women’s reproductive health. However these charities do not promote active sexual health via methods that are standard in western societies such as condoms, oral contraceptives, or IUDs. Rather these initiatives favour sterilisation, with bonuses for clinics that perform more than 30 in one day, as well as for doctors and NGO professionals who sign patients up. In India the treatment of women in sexual health clinics is sordid, as part of programmes sponsored by societies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In Kenya a court case has been brought against the government and organisations such as Marie Stopes International and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) for the forced sterilisation of HIV positive women, and other studies have revealed similar experiences of women in Uganda, Namibia and South Africa.

In the context of a global ideology centred around population control, a woman’s freedom over her own body forms the most dangerous part of her rights, for the woman – in constant need of supervision and guidance in the public sphere, freedom over her body awards her agency over the right to decide future generations, and thus the future of society. This is why the roots of our current thinking are in such deep need of consideration and analysis, for we must understand what is so threatening to the established order in giving women the freedom to have complete control over their bodies. Given the eugenic origins of the conversation surrounding women’s reproductive rights that persisted publicly into the 1950’s, it is imperative that we assess the impact on our current mainstream conversation around women’s bodies.

To this day there is very little real notion of female ownership over her body, marital rape was legal just over 20 years ago in the UK. The woman’s body has never been hers. Invasive, often painful reproductive choices were offered to women long before sexual choices were, making it patently clear that progress was never intended to benefit women, rather the greater good of society and science through the medium of the female body. Only now are we beginning to see the ground shift in the conversation surrounding women’s sexuality and therefore actual freedoms for the woman inside her own body. However reproductive freedoms are still at stake, forced sterilisation is in practice to this day in the US and the UK, and the fact that phenomenal amounts of money and resources are being pumped into genetic research whilst people live in appalling conditions in one of the richest countries in the world implies that not very much has changed at the root of our thinking. And this should concern women.

Provided arguments surrounding superior genetics remain, women will not be granted social freedoms over their bodies, it is anathema to the concept. Within this structural vision of gender it is impossible for a woman to be viewed for anything more than her body, as life giving is the central function to her existence, her body becomes central to her social identity. The focus on population control rather than on individual bodies gives future value to the female body which cannot be left to the disposal of the woman alone. This process ensures the parallel demonisation and fetishisation of female sexuaity and what is considered feminine, and will continue to justify the necessity of unequal treatment. By placing science as the ultimate regulator of human society we are abdicating responsibility as to the healthy functioning of our societies; where we should be looking to develop infrastructure to care for our people we are instead looking for techniques and narratives that justify the ethnic and social cleansing of our populations. This process takes place through the woman and as such the woman is agent as well as victim of oppression, dangerous in absolutely every sense.


Further reading

Allen, Ann Taylor. “Feminism and Eugenics in Germany and Britain, 1900-1940: A Comparative Perspective.” German Studies Review, vol. 23, no. 3, 2000, pp. 477–505.

Soloway, Richard A. “The ‘Perfect Contraceptive’: Eugenics and Birth Control Research in Britain and America in the Interwar Years.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 30, no. 4, 1995, pp. 637–664.,

Zeigler, Mary. “Eugenic Feminism: Mental Hygiene, the Women’s Movement and the Campaign for Eugenic Legal Reform, 1900-1935“. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, vol. 31, pp. 211-236.