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Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 12:09 UK

The politics of stamps

Marie Stopes stamp

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

As a new stamp of Marie Stopes shows, the people and things that go on stamps can prove a controversial business.

Once upon a time stamps were rather simple. The Penny Black and the Two Penny Blue had Queen Victoria's head on and not a great deal else.

But in the subsequent years, we have got used to stamps that have attempted to tell stories, commemorate events and honour people.

And with this expansion in the ambit of the stamp, so the scope for controversy has amplified.

In Radiant Motherhood, Stopes said she "would like to see the sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood made an immediate possibility, indeed made compulsory"
Also wrote: "When bills are passed to ensure the sterility of the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased..."
Sent book of love poetry to Hitler

The Royal Mail, in common with many postal services around the world, issues several "thematic" sets of stamps every year. And it is a rare occasion when no comment is passed on the subject matter of these stamps.

Its latest release, remembering "women of distinction" who have changed the lives of women in Britain, has drawn criticism from some quarters, particularly for the inclusion of contraception pioneer Marie Stopes.

Stopes is in the group of six women because she paved the way for the modern concept of family planning. But her presence on a stamp has been attacked by churchmen.

'Nazi-loving bigot'

Their allegations are thus - Stopes believed fervently in eugenics, supported compulsory sterilisation of some, and, having sent a book of poetry to Adolf Hitler, should be regarded as a sympathiser.

One newspaper referred to her as a "Nazi-loving bigot".

So how did such a controversial figure end up on a stamp?

Dalai Lama, proposed for an Austrian stamp in 2005, and Roger Taylor who appeared on a British stamp in 1999
The appearance of these individuals caused a stir

The Royal Mail gets many letters and e-mails every year suggesting themes and people for stamp sets. If one arouses interest a two-to-three year process commences. Typically, research is done and the theme confirmed. Then the choice of people or objects is dealt with, often by a panel of outside experts. The final suggestions have to be approved by the Stamp Advisory Committee.

But no process, however painstaking, can eliminate controversy.

Two recent examples have caused gnashing of teeth. In 1999, Queen drummer Roger Taylor was shown in the background of a stamp featuring Freddie Mercury. The convention is that living persons are never shown.

But this row was dwarfed in 2005, when a Christmas stamp which appeared to show Hindus worshipping the baby Jesus was replaced after causing offence.

Maori 'insult'

And problems are not restricted to Britain, says Matt Hill, editor of Stamp and Coin Mart.

An issue by the New Zealand post office in 2006 intending to commemorate Maori culture by depictions of people doing the haka was derided as poorly drawn and cartoonish. "It was seen as an insult," says Hill, and withdrawn before going on sale.

1994: Cigarette removed from Robert Johnson stamp

1999: Roger Taylor on Queen stamp
2005: Hindus shown with baby Jesus
2005: Austrians cancel Dalai Lama stamp
2006: New Zealand withdraws Maori stamp
2008: Iran issues Hezbollah leader stamp

And stamps can easily stray into an overtly political field.

Austria planned a series commemorating the life of the Dalai Lama in 2005, only to change their mind, allegedly under intense pressure from the Chinese government.

In March this year, Iran unveiled a stamp featuring Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, wanted by the US for a series of bombings and kidnappings, who had himself died in a car bombing.

Stamps have been used to lay claim to territory, says Mr Hill, during border disputes between Peru and Bolivia, and as part of Argentina's long-running claim to the Falkland Islands.

Stamps can become a reflection of political and cultural norms. One battleground in the UK in recent years has been whether Jesus should appear in the Christmas issues. When he does not, there can be ire in the papers.

"There are a lot of people who say Christmas stamps should be religious," says Guy Thomas, editor of Stamp magazine. "In the past few years they have consciously been trying to cover both angles. The Royal Mail are pretty careful about these kinds of things."

Social historians

For the stamp collectors, while there are occasional gripes about certain themes lacking weight, complaints about the people featured are rare, says Mr Thomas. A couple of letters to the magazine after the recent appearance of the nephew-murdering Richard III on a stamp were the exception rather than the rule.

Instead, collectors are more commonly angered by the quality of the art and the by the frequency of issues that they must buy to keep their collection complete.

There is a case to be made that it is impossible to commemorate historic figures without accepting a degree of controversy.

The nomination of Stopes was by a group of female social historians.

Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh was also a believer in eugenics

One of them, Dr Nicola Phillips, a research fellow in history at Kingston University, says context is everything.

"Contraception is one of the issues that have meant an awful lot to women. As an undergraduate years and years ago I read some of the maternity letters collected by the women's co-operative guild - the appalling health problems they had from constantly having children."

Say the word eugenics now and we think automatically of the appalling atrocities committed by the Nazis, but in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century it was a relatively mainstream area of scientific research.

"You can't take the woman out of her historical context," says Dr Phillips. "After World War I there was widespread concern about the state of Britain's troops - the number of men being rejected from the draft because they were physically incapable.

"Eugenics was a widespread belief at the time. Like a lot of geniuses Stopes had some strange ideas and was convinced of her own ability.

"I know she sent a book of poetry to Hitler but as soon as the war started she was very patriotic. She offered her services to the government. She offered her house."

Stopes has a parallel across the Atlantic in Charles Lindbergh. He has been featured on stamps for his feats of aviation despite his belief in eugenics and the accusations of Nazi sympathies that dogged him.

When it comes to historical figures from further back, like your Richard IIIs and your Oliver Cromwells, you have even more questionable acts. To completely reject the "controversial" is almost to risk closing off history as a theme.

And there's a positive side, even to the rows some issues generate. "People care about what goes on stamps," the Royal Mail says.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Has Winston Churchill ever been on a stamp? This from him in 1910: "The unnatural growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes is a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. The source from which this stain of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed."
LapsedHeathen, Nottingham

So... no more Churchill, Shaw, Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell or Plato then. All supporters of eugenics.
Graham Vincent, Bristol

Human beings are not perfect and if you are going to commemorate specific events or ideas you are inevitably going to include people who have "skeletons" in their cupboard. Contraception freed women worldwide and allowed our generation freedoms not available to our mothers and grandmothers. If we can celebrate the scientists who developed the atomic bomb then Marie Stopes should be treated the same.
Sue, Boston

While researching for my novel, Sporeville, I was struck by our failure to recognize the repugnance of eugenics activities practised in Canada, the USA, and other countries. Advocates such as Stopes' first husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates, continue to be honoured through, for example, the Royal Anthropological Institute's Ruggles-Gates Fund for Biological Anthropology, and Mount Allison University's Ruggles Gates Award. Eugenics should stand as a warning of the dangers of misusing science and technology in social engineering projects that are offensive to human dignity. To do so, its advocates shouldn't be glossed over with excuses such as "historical context". Eugenics was a pseudoscience often used to confirm race or class prejudices. However well-intentioned, its supporters placed abstractions like "purity" and the state ahead of individuals, and they should be condemned for it.
Paul Marlowe, New Brunswick, Canada

If a man flies across the Atlantic for the first time he can be honoured for this. His political views are irrelevant. However Marie Stopes did not invent a new method of contraception, or make any scientific contribution at all. She was entirely political. So to honour her is to honour her political program, which is why the Marie Stopes stamp is unacceptable.
Malcolm McLean, Bradford

For what Marie Stopes expounded on in her writings is nothing short of disgusting. She and others in the eugenics movement were propagating the same propaganda as Nazis. The difference is they actually went and put it into practice. This woman should not be on these stamps because she is as bad as them.
Sarah Feehan, Liverpool

I can understand why people might not like the idea of honouring Marie Stopes by putting her image on a stamp. I myself find the idea of eugenics highly distasteful particularly as it was vigorously applied to my family during World War II but I think that we should remember that Marie Stopes is being honoured for the great good that she did and the enormous strides that she made in the field of contraception. I should imagine that there will almost always be some disgrace that will offend someone in every person's life but this should not detract from that person's very real achievements.
C Anderson, Cambridge

If context is everything, this Marie Stopes was the woman who basically disliked working class children and was opposed to the Education Act: "I need not labour the resulting effect of the ever increasing prolongation of youth." She feared that working class children and the conditions would give rise to "inferior stock". She also disowned her son Harry from his will for marrying a short-sighted woman "the horror of our line being so contaminated... Mary and Harry are quite callous about both the wrong to their children, the wrong to my family and the eugenic crime."
Kieran Kearney, Glasgow

While not strictly to the point, Richard III should be described as an "alleged" nephew murderer please. There is no actual evidence one way or the other and certainly Henry VII and the then Duke of Buckingham are also in the frame.
Bob A, Manchester

Eugenics is not a dead idea, it just goes by the name "genetic engineering" today, and it's whole focus is on eliminating certain "undesirable" things from future generations - exactly what eugenics was about. We screen foetuses for genetic deformities, and ask the mothers if they want a termination - how is that any better or worse than the old ideas of sterilising entire races or classes?
Douglas Daniel, Glasgow, Scotland

You can't take historical figures out of their context. George Washington kept slaves, Rudyard Kipling was patronising ("You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din"). Neither was particularly wicked by the standards of their time. The list could go on and on. Unless one is opposed in principle to birth control, why not commemorate Stopes for the positive things she did achieve?
John B, London, UK

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