Stella Browne

Stella Browne

Stella Browne, the daughter of Daniel Marshall Browne, was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 9th May 1880. Her father drowned on duty with the Canadian Marine in 1883.

Browne was educated at Saint Felix School in Southwold and Somerville College. After achieving a second-class honours in modern history at the University of Oxford in 1902, she became a schoolteacher. Later she worked under Mary Sheepshanks at Morley College for Working Men and Women. She was also a member of the Women Social & Political Union.

On 23rd November, 1911, Dora Marsden, Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe published the first edition of The Freewoman. The journal caused a storm when it advocated free love and encouraged women not to get married. The journal also included articles that suggested communal childcare and co-operative housekeeping. Stella Browne became one of the journal's most important contributors.

Mary Humphrey Ward, the leader of Anti-Suffrage League argued that the journal represented "the dark and dangerous side of the Women's Movement". According to Ray Strachey, the leader of the National Union of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Millicent Fawcett, read the first edition and "thought it so objectionable and mischievous that she tore it up into small pieces". Whereas Maude Royden described it as a "nauseous publication". Edgar Ansell commented that it was "a disgusting publication... indecent, immoral and filthy."

The most controversial aspect of the The Freewoman was its support for free-love. On 23rd November, 1911 Rebecca West wrote an article where she claimed: "Marriage had certain commercial advantages. By it the man secures the exclusive right to the woman's body and by it, the woman binds the man to support her during the rest of her life... a more disgraceful bargain was never struck."

On 28th December 1911, Dora Marsden began a five-part series on morality. Dora argued that in the past women had been encouraged to restrain their senses and passion for life while "dutifully keeping alive and reproducing the species". She criticised the suffrage movement for encouraging the image of "female purity" and the "chaste ideal". Dora suggested that this had to be broken if women were to be free to lead an independent life. She made it clear that she was not demanding sexual promiscuity for "to anyone who has ever got any meaning out of sexual passion the aggravated emphasis which is bestowed upon physical sexual intercourse is more absurd than wicked."

Dora Marsden went on to attack traditional marriage: "Monogamy was always based upon the intellectual apathy and insensitiveness of married women, who fulfilled their own ideal at the expense of the spinster and the prostitute." According to Marsden monogamy's four cornerstones were "men's hypocrisy, the spinster's dumb resignation, the prostitute's unsightly degradation and the married woman's monopoly." Marsden then added "indissoluble monogamy is blunderingly stupid, and reacts immorally, producing deceit, sensuality, vice, promiscuity and an unfair monopoly." Friends assumed that Marsden was writing about her relationships with Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe.

On 21st March 1912 Stella Browne wrote about her views on free-love in The Freewoman: "The sexual experience is the right of every human being not hopelessly afflicted in mind or body and should be entirely a matter of free choice and personal preference untainted by bargain or compulsion."

The articles on sexuality created a great deal of controversy. However, they were very popular with the readers of the journal. In February 1912, Ethel Bradshaw, secretary of the Bristol branch of the Fabian Women's Group, suggested that readers formed Freewoman Discussion Circles. Soon afterwards they had their first meeting in London and other branches were set up in other towns and cities.

Stella Browne was an active member of the Freewoman Discussion Circles. Talks included Edith Ellis (Some Problems of Eugenics), Rona Robinson (Abolition of Domestic Drudgery), C. H. Norman (The New Prostitution), Huntley Carter (The Dances of the Stars) and Guy Aldred (Sex Oppression and the Way Out). Other active members included Grace Jardine, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Edmund Haynes, Harry J. Birnstingl, Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, Rebecca West, Havelock Ellis, Lily Gair Wilkinson, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon and Rose Witcup.

In 1913 Stella Browne, joined forces with George Ives, Edward Carpenter, Magnus Hirschfeld and Laurence Housman to establish the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. The papers she gave to the society, included "The sexual variety and variability among women and their bearing upon social reconstruction" (1915).

Browne wrote in 1917: "The psychology of homogenic women has been much less studied than that of inverted men. Probably there are many varieties and subtleties of emotional fibre among them. Some very great authorities have believed that the inverted woman is more often bisexual - less exclusively attracted to offer women - than the inverted man. This view needs very careful confirmation, but if true, it would prove the greater plasticity of women's sex-impulse. It has also been stated that the invert, man or woman, is drawn towards the normal types of their own sex... Certainly, the heterosexual woman of passionate but shy and sensitive nature, is often responsive to the inverted woman's advances, especially if she is erotically ignorant and inexperienced. Also many women of quite normally directed (heterosexual) inclinations, realise in mature life, when they have experienced passion, that the devoted admiration and friendship they felt for certain girl friends, had a real, though perfectly unconscious spark of desire in its exaltation and intensity; an unmistakable, indefinable note, which was absolutely lacking in many equally sincere and lasting friendships."

Browne published Studies in Female Inversion in 1918: "This problem of feminine inversion is very pressing and immediate, taking into consideration the fact that in the near future, for at least a generation, the circumstances of women's lives and work will tend, even more than at present, to favor the frigid (sexually repressed) and next to the frigid, the inverted types. Even at present, the social and affectional side of the invert's nature has often fuller opportunity of satisfaction than the heterosexual woman's, but often at the cost of adequate and definite physical expression. I think it is perhaps not wholly uncalled-for, to underline very strongly my opinion that the homosexual impulse is not in any way superior to the normal; it has a fully equal right to existence and expression, it is no worse, no lower; but no better."

According to her biographer, Lesley A. Hall: "Browne emphasized the need for women to speak about their own experiences. In both principle and practice Stella was a convinced believer in free love, known to have had various lovers, certainly some male, and possibly some female, though these cannot be reliably identified."

Browne, a member of the Malthusian League, campaigned strongly for birth control and abortion. She was also a member of the Divorce Law Reform Union, the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Humanitarian League, the Fabian Society, the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Stella Browne died following a heart attack on 8th May 1955 at her home, 39 Hawarden Avenue, Sefton Park, Liverpool.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Stella Browne, The Freewoman (1st August 1912)

For us Freewoman the issue is clear. We must secure a decent chance in the material environment for every child born in the world. we must see to it that the woman who is passionately and pre-eminently maternal shall not be condemned to childlessness through economic pressure and medieval conventions, yet our right to refuse maternity is also our invulnerable right. Our wills are ours, our persons are ours.

(2) Stella Browne, The Sexual Variety and Variability Among Women (1917)

Artificial or substitute homosexuality - as distinct from true inversion - is very widely diffused among women, as a result of the repression of normal gratification and the segregation of the sexes, which still largely obtains. It appears, I think, later in life than onanism; in the later twenties or thirties rather than in the teens. Sometimes its only direct manifestations are quite noncommittal and platonic; but even this incomplete and timid homosexuality can always be distinguished from true affectionate friendship between women, by its jealous, exacting and extravagant tone. Of course, when one of the partners in such an attachment is a real or congenital invert, it is at once much more serious and much more physical. The psychology of homogenic women has been much less studied than that of inverted men. Probably there are many varieties and subtleties of emotional fibre among them. Some very great authorities have believed that the inverted woman is more often bisexual - less exclusively attracted to offer women - than the inverted man. This view needs very careful confirmation, but if true, it would prove the greater plasticity of women's sex-impulse. It has also been stated that the invert, man or woman, is drawn towards the normal types of their own sex. These and other points, should be elucidated by the Society's work. Certainly, the heterosexual woman of passionate but shy and sensitive nature, is often responsive to the inverted woman's advances, especially if she is erotically ignorant and inexperienced. Also many women of quite normally directed (heterosexual) inclinations, realise in mature life, when they have experienced passion, that the devoted admiration and friendship they felt for certain girl friends, had a real, though perfectly unconscious spark of desire in its exaltation and intensity; an unmistakable, indefinable note, which was absolutely lacking in many equally sincere and lasting friendships.

Neither artificial homosexuality nor prolonged auto-eroticism - to use Havelock Ellis' masterly phrase - prove innate morbidity. Careful observation and many confidences from members of my own sex, have convinced me that our maintenance of outworn traditions is manufacturing habitual auto-erotists and perverts, out of women who would instinctively prefer the love of a man, who would bring them sympathy and comprehension as well as desire. I repudiate all wish to slight or depreciate the love-life of the real homosexual; but it cannot be advisable to force the growth of that habit in heterosexual people.

(3) Stella Browne, International Journal of Ethics (Vol 28 1917)

On the occasion of the International Medical Congress in London, during the summer of 1913, the need for unprejudiced and thorough investigation of sexual divergences from average habits and standards was brought forcibly to the notice of a small group of men of letters, and workers for various humanitarian and democratic causes. In the previous year, 1912, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Separation and Divorce, and the Proceedings of the Eugenic Congress had revealed publicly the need for reorganising the laws and conditions of family life in this country. The Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases was appointed in October, 1913 at the urgent request of leading doctors and largely owning to statements made in the course of the International Medical Congress. However grudgingly and imperfectly, light was being at last let into some of the dark places where life still agonized and decayed, and the initiators of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology felt the need for "more light"; and particularly in the case of members of the specially privileged and responsible medical, legal and educational professions. In all these three professions, in spite of treasures of goodwill and knowledge, experience and devotion, there still exists a tragic ignorance of certain profound and ineradicable human tendencies. And even those persons who see and admit the importance of these tabooed subjects and who help generously in individual cases of hardship, are, too often, unable or unwilling to demand a revision - or, at least, a suspension pending enquiries - of social judgment. It is significantly that the President of the Medico-Psychological Society recently admitted in a letter to the British Medical Journal that "British medicine has erred in the past in totally ignoring the very considerable influence of sex instinct."

The founders of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology soon realised that their investigations could not be confined to one type of abnormal sexuality, but must cover a wide and diverse field of psychology, and must take into consideration the influence of atavistic superstitions, and economic conditions. Among the pioneers and pillars of the Society certain names must receive special mention. The formal institution of the Society, which occurred in April, 1914, and its establishment on a workable basis are very largely due to the prestige and inspiration of Edward Carpenter and the indefatigable activity and versatile talents of Laurence Housman. The position of these two pioneers in the intellectual world, and their close connection with the democratic and feminist movements, have been invaluable assets. Both are still active members of the Executive Committee of the Society and Laurence Housman has contributed largely to its literature. Associated with them in the foundation of B.S.S.P. and also at present members of its Executive, are George Ives, an authority on the reform of our criminal law, and author of that psychological and historical classic "A History of Penal Methods"; and Bertram Lloyd, one of the ablest and most active of the younger Socialists and humanitarians. These four men were certainly the cornerstones of the Society. Other members of the Society now include the chief exponents of the psycho-analytic doctrine in England; the leaders of the birth-control movement and the founder of the movement for Divorce Law Reform; several eminent eugenists and educational specialists; and an increasing number of medical men and women. It is interesting to note that the first medical members of the Society were women.

(4) Stella Browne, Studies in Female Inversion (1918)

This problem of feminine inversion is very pressing and immediate, taking into consideration the fact that in the near future, for at least a generation, the circumstances of women's lives and work will tend, even more than at present, to favor the frigid (sexually repressed) and next to the frigid, the inverted types. Even at present, the social and affectional side of the invert's nature has often fuller opportunity of satisfaction than the heterosexual woman's, but often at the cost of adequate and definite physical expression. And how decisive for vigor, sanity and serenity of body and mind, for efficiency, for happiness, for the mastery of life, and the understanding of one's fellow-creatures-just this definite physical expression is! The lack of it, "normal” and "abnormal," is at the root of most of what is most trivial and unsatisfactory in women's intellectual output, as well as of their besetting vice of cruelty. How can anyone be finely or greatly creative, if one's supreme moral law is a negation! Not to live, not to do, not even to try to understand...

I think it is perhaps not wholly uncalled-for, to underline very strongly my opinion that the homosexual impulse is not in any way superior to the normal; it has a fully equal right to existence and expression, it is no worse, no lower; but no better.

By all means let the invert-let all of us - have as many and varied "channels of sublimation" as possible; and far more than are at present available. But, to be honest, are we not too much inclined to make "sublimation" an excuse for refusing to tackle fundamentals? The tragedy of the repressed invert is apt to be not only one of emotional frustration, but complete dislocation of mental values.

Moreover, our present social arrangements, founded as they are on the repression and degradation of the normal erotic impulse, artificially stimulate. Inversion and have thus forfeited all right to condemn it. There is a huge, persistent, indirect pressure on women of strong passions and fine brains to find an emotional outlet with other women. A woman who is unwilling to accept either marriage - under present laws - or prostitution, and at the same time refuses to limit her sexual life to auto-erotic manifestations, will find she has to struggle against the whole social order for what is nevertheless her most precious personal right.

The right sort of woman faces the struggle and counts the cost well worth while; but it is impossible to avoid seeing that she risks the most painful experiences, and spends an incalculable amount of time and energy on things that should be matters of course.