University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
Stella Browne (9 May 1880 – 8 May 1955) was a Canadian-born British feminist, socialist, sex radical, and birth control campaigner.
The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (BSSSP), of which Edith Lees Ellis was a member, was established in 1913 to provide a forum for the discussion of new ideas in the field of sex reform. The first woman member of the society was the militant suffragist Cicely Hamilton, and she was soon joined by a number of other notable feminists, such as Kathlyn Oliver and Stella Browne, and by Mrs Mary Scharlieb, one of the first women to gain a medical qualification in Britain. The membership of these women suggests that feminism and sexuology were not necessarily antithetical views and feminists did not reject the idea of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter.
Browne was one of the primary women in the fight for women's right to control and make decisions regarding their sexual choices. Active mainly in Britain, her principal focus was on sexual law reform, including the right for women to both access knowledge on and use birth control, as well as the right to abortion. She was also involved in labour parties, communist parties, as well as a number of women's societies. Stella Browne was one of the first women to speak out in somewhat offensive ways about her beliefs with a "Forward, Charge!" approach. She did this through attacks in her articles and letters that kept her in the public's eye and added to the debates around many controversial topics surrounding women's rights. She is famous for her lectures and her work with the Abortion Law Reform Association. As a women's rights activist, Browne was able to keep questions of women's rights to their body and sexuality in the public eye long enough to get other people interested enough to keep the cause going even after her death.
Stella Browne (birth name Frances Worsley Stella Browne) was born on 9 May 1880 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was the daughter of Daniel Marshall Browne and his second wife Anna Dulcibella Mary Dodwell, who went by the name Dulcie. Daniel Browne worked for the Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries, after resigning from his post as Navigating Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Before marrying Stella's mother, Dulcie, the eldest daughter of clergyman Reverend George Branson Dodwell, M.A., and his wife Isabella Naysmith, he was married to Catherine Magdalene MacLean in 1867. In 1869, Catharine gave birth to Daniel's first daughter Maud, and shortly after died at the age of 35 from "chronic gastritis." Daniel and Dulcie were married on 23 February 1878, and Stella was born in 1880, followed in 1882 by her younger sister Alice Lemira Sylvia Browne, known as Sylvia. When Stella was three years old, Daniel, now Superintendent of Lighthouses, was aboard the Dominion steamship Princess Louise, and drowned. Though the family was in shock after his death, they were supported in part by money and property from his will, contingent on Dulcie remaining unmarried. Dulcie remained unmarried, sold the home and began a boarding house for single women. This boarding house meant that Stella was brought up in an environment surrounded by the struggles of single women throughout her childhood, and watched the struggle of her own mother, now a single working-woman. Little else is known about Stella's childhood as she rarely referred to it in her later writings. She was known to have considered herself British, as opposed to Canadian – detaching herself from her roots, her family having left Halifax in 1892 when Stella was twelve. Stella Browne was first educated in (Germany), as her mother's sister, Louisa Frances Siemens, had married an electrical-engineer with an extensive kinship network, enabling her to attend school there. While in school she became fluent in both French and German by 1899. This allowed her to write the "Women's First" to gain entrance at Oxford. She would be recognised for her refined and correct translations of German in her later life. In 1897, Browne entered the St. Felix School for Girls in Southwold, Suffolk. This school had very relaxed rules and encouraged its students to discover new things on their own. This promoted independence and leadership, as even their schoolhouses were named after women of achievement in history. While she was at school here she won a History Exhibition at Somerville College, Oxford in 1899, that afforded her £20 a year for the three years, which was given to her guardian as her mother was still living in Germany at this time. Browne then attended Somerville, where she graduated with a second-class Honours degree in Modern History in 1902. This school was especially important in her career as it was one of the only schools at the time that allowed women to write exams alongside men and had them working towards an Honours rather than a mere Pass Degree as many would. This had an influence on Browne's expectations and ideals on gender equality as it was given to her in part while she was at school here. Her political activism was also fostered at this school through her involvement with Student's Parliament. Upon completion of her education, Browne first worked as a teacher in hopes of achieving some independence for herself. Her health however, began to decline due to a heart condition that she had, and she was no longer able to handle the strain of the job, developing additional anxiety problems. She then moved back to Germany where she discovered the budding German woman's movement, which Helene Stöcker was heading in a fairly radical manner. Stöcker was fighting at this time for women's rights of motherhood and support for the unmarried mother. Stöcker's arguments strongly affected Browne as she, later in life, would fight for women's rights to control their bodies and for the choice to become mother. Browne then began work for the Victoria County History, writing up parish histories, and learning researching skills that she would use in her later career. She left this job in 1907, moving into the position of Librarian at Morley College in South London. Here she was able to take in various controversial lectures, with topics ranging from marriage and divorce reform to eugenics. Working at the college also allowed Browne to see the different social problems faced by both working class and professional class women. Browne met her first male lover here, known as her "demi-semi-lover" and never noted by name, only by his sexual prowess. She also joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1908, which marked the beginning of her social activism.
Browne had a severe heart attack at the beginning of May 1955, and the night before her seventy-fifth birthday she died. The worst offence that was afforded to Browne can be found on her death certificate where under occupation she is noted as being a "Spinster: No occupation.” Considering her opinion that women should not be labelled for their choice not to marry, this would be a huge insult to Browne.
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