Marie Stopes’s Wonderful Rhythm Charts: Normalizing the Natural
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Marie Stopes’s Wonderful Rhythm Charts:
Normalizing the Natural
ABSTRACT:

Historians of sexuality credit marital advice with disseminating a modern discourse of the sexual, as developed by sexologists who understood sex as normal or abnormal. Marie Stopes did not reproduce their findings but drew on the methods of biometricians in attempting to normalize the natural. Thinking about Stopes’s methods in discerning a naturally occurring curve of normal female sex-impulses in relation to Havelock Ellis points to constraints in his production of the normal. The article traces the impact of Stopes’s attempt to measure desire by analyzing letters from her readers who became partners in the great scientific project of normalization.

KEY WORDS:

normal, natural, normalization, sexology, periodicity, marital advice, heterosexuality, sexual desire, biometrics

In early 1913 Dr. Marie Stopes, a lecturer in paleobotany at University College, London, began to monitor daily changes in her body and mood to determine whether there existed a “normal, spontaneous sex-tide in women.”1 Aged 32 and already an internationally respected authority on plant life, fossil plants, and coal, Stopes drew on her extensive training and experience in the study of the natural world to make an original contribution to a topic long regarded by male researchers as too “obscure” to examine objectively: namely, the “phenomena of sexual periodicity” in women.2 Each month over the course of about two years, Stopes dutifully created a time chart on graph paper with handwritten annotations, entering her assessment of the daily values of her sexual arousal based on close and [End Page 595] methodical self-observation (fig. 1). Using a statistical method called time series analysis, the botanist-cum-sex-researcher placed an x along a horizontal axis to measure the highs and lows from a point designated as a “datum line,” a technique that, she would later argue, made “graphically clear” the regularity of the “fundamental rhythm of feeling.”3 After subjecting her own body to the scientific gaze and recording the most intimate sensory data imaginable, Stopes would eventually enlist others to assist her in achieving one of her many great ambitions: to discover a naturally occurring curve of normal sex-impulses and thereby establish as a general law the “Periodicity of Recurrence of desire in women” (ML 39).

A flamboyant, controversial, and extraordinary figure—“one of the most important women of the twentieth century”—Stopes is best known now for her numerous books, pamphlets, and articles on marriage, birth control, motherhood, sex education, sexual health, and eugenics.4 Yet in addition to being a popular writer on matters pertaining to sex and sexuality, Stopes was also an excellent scientist who made significant interventions in her areas of specialization, authoring books and articles in learned journals on subjects as varied as carboniferous and cretaceous flora, the “epidermoidal” layer of calamite roots, and the “double nature of the cycadean integument.”5 After winning the “gold medal in botany” in her first year at University College, London, she was awarded double honors (first class in botany). Stopes then went on to achieve a string of distinguished accomplishments: “The only woman among five hundred men, Stopes completed and defended her thesis (in German) within the year, becoming the first woman in Munich to take a PhD in botany. In 1904 Stopes was appointed assistant lecturer in botany at Manchester University, another first for a woman. In 1905 she became the youngest doctor of science in Britain.”6 In this essay I will consider how Stopes’s understanding of science as a positivist and empiricist endeavor, her adept use of statistical methods, and her championing of citizen participation in confirming “her theory of the normal sexual cycle in women” enabled her to pioneer a new discursive formation of the sex lives of the “ordinary normal man and woman.”7 More often seen as an advocate of birth control or eugenic principles and ideals [End Page 596]

Figure 1. Chart by Marie Stopes (1913?). British Library Board, BL Add MS 58506.
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Figure 1.

Chart by Marie Stopes (1913?). British Library Board, BL Add MS 58506.

than as a distinguished scientist, it has been difficult to grasp how her knowledge and expertise in modern botany gave her an edge over sexologists in...


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