Law, Literature, and Libel: Victorian Censorship of 'Dirty Filthy' Books on Birth Control

38 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2005

See all articles by Kristin Kalsem

Kristin Kalsem

University of Cincinnati - College of Law


This article presents a case study of the feminist jurisprudence performed by three early birth control advocates: Annie Besant, Jane Hume Clapperton, and Marie Stopes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the subject of birth control was so taboo that serious efforts were made to keep John Stuart Mill from being buried in Westminster Abbey because of his sympathies with the idea of family limitation. The threat of being charged with obscenity and immorality, whether in a legal indictment, in a literary review, or in the court of public opinion, effectively silenced much public discourse on this important social issue. Besant, Clapperton and Stopes, however, dared to speak out.

Annie Besant published a tract on birth control and defended herself in court against charges of obscene libel in a highly publicized 1877 trial. The writer Jane Hume Clapperton took the unprecedented step of advocating for the use of artificial birth control in a novel, Margaret Dunmore; or, A Socialist Home (1888). Marie Stopes wrote two runaway bestsellers on the topic, Married Love (1918) and Wise Parenthood (1918), and opened the first birth control clinic in England in 1921.

These three women used legal and literary public forums to foreground women's experiences and to expose the devastating real-life effects of denying women access to knowledge about family limitation. An analysis of their work and the myriad attempts to keep them quiet illumines the ways in which indirect control of access to information on birth control served to regulate women's bodies and maintain traditionally-held cultural beliefs about "good" mothering and female sexuality.

The stories of Besant, Clapperton and Stopes impress on the historical record that, despite all legal, extralegal, and illegal efforts to censor and censure those who were publicizing contraceptive information, word was getting out. As the regulation of motherhood, reproductive health, rights, and access continue to be pressing twenty-first-century concerns, there is much to be learned from the revisionary strategies of these early advocates.

Keywords: Legal History, Women & The Law, Feminist Jurisprudence, Law & Literature

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

Kalsem, Kristin, Law, Literature, and Libel: Victorian Censorship of 'Dirty Filthy' Books on Birth Control. Available at SSRN:

Kristin Kalsem (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

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