Stella Browne is a largely overlooked yet pivotal figure in British feminist history, and Lesley A Hall’s meticulously researched biography of the “feminist and free spirit” reminds us just why we should remember and revere Stella.
Born in 1880, Stella had no intention of conforming to the conventional life society assumed for women, remaining not only unmarried, but taking a number of sexual partners of, gasp, both genders! She devoted her life to all number of women’s causes, notably socialism, suffrage, lesbianism and, most significantly for Stella, sexual reform.
She was a tireless writer and campaigner for abortion rights and contraception, at a time when it was considered abhorrent to even mention either topic in polite society. Taking no notice of what was expected of her, Stella wrote and spoke publically to demand women’s rights for safe abortions, revealed to a government committee that she had undergone abortions herself (which was illegal at the time), and co-founded the Abortion Law Reform Association.
Stella is presented in this biography as a frequently unfashionable woman, who was disliked by many of her contemporaries, quite possibly for her dominance, outspokenness and plain speaking. But the simple fact that she campaigned for birth control information to be freely available to women and men, unmarried and married, marks Stella as a deeply important character.
Hall’s book is a thorough and in-depth analysis of Stella’s life, which is no mean feat considering how scant the existing research is. But Hall has unearthed a library of letters and papers that have helped her piece together a well-informed and fascinating insight into this extraordinary woman’s life.
That Stella achieved so much and that her name is not better known is a travesty, but I hope Hall’s excellent book will help to secure Stella a much-deserved place in the feminist hall of fame.