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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Leo Abse on Stella Browne

I recently came across, cited in Stephen Brooke's Sexual Politics: Sexuality, family planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2011: eventual post to follow when I've finished it), Leo Abse's comments on Stella Browne in his autobiography, Private Member (1973).

Abse considered that Stella Browne, Janet Chance and Alice Jenkins, were 'intelligent shrill viragos...[with] pathological disorder... [who] resented their feminine identity'. Stella, he claimed, was a 'loud-mouthed, filthy storytelling ragbag'.

Although at first I was concerned that I had missed a firsthand impression of Stella when writing her biography, on reflection the likelihood that Abse ever met any of these three women, apart possibly from Alice Jenkins, who was the only founder member of ALRA to see the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, seems minimal in the extreme. He was nearly 40 years younger than Stella (and over 30 years younger than Janet Chance), and their paths could only possibly have crossed in the late 1930s when he was studying law at the London School of Economics (possible, but not very likely). After war service in the RAF, he was based in Cardiff until being elected to Parliament in 1958. Furthermore, his condemnation is expressed in terms so very similar to Mrs Garrett's reported description of Stella quoted in Hindell and Simms, Abortion Law Reformed  (1971 - recently reissued in paperback) that the balance of evidence suggests he was working from that source rather than any personal acquaintance.

So I don't think I've let some precious piece of primary evidence escape me, though I suppose this posthumous and hearsay bit of blackguarding might have fitted into my 'Coda' on Stella's afterlife.


  1. This comment is potentially misleading, since it implies that Brooke asserts that Abse's violent antipathy to Browne was based on firsthand impressions. In fact anyone reading the passage (pp.179-80 of Brooke's Sexual Politics) will see that he makes no such claim. Rather Brooke deploys the quotation to reveal the disparity between Abse's distaste for (female) abortion law reform advocates and his enthusiastic support for (male) homosexual law reform. Brooke is making an important point here about the complex and uneven ways in which 'sexual liberalism' functioned at the political level, and this comment does his nuanced and sophisticated argument a disservice.

    1. That's not what I said: it's got nothing to do with Brooke's arguments at all. I was concerned, as I said, that I had missed some firsthand impressions of Stella Browne by Abse when doing my research on her for my biography, published last year, and as you may have noticed, extensively cited in Brooke's Sexual Politics.

      This post was in no way any kind of stricture against Brooke's book, which I hope to address in extenso in a post specifically devoted to it.

      I don't suppose you follow this blog, but it has included a number of posts on 'things about Stella Browne that came to light (at least for me) after the biography came out'. That was the theme into which this fit.