Project Description

Alana Harris (UK) is a lecturer in modern British History at King’s College London who specializes in areas related to the history of gender and sexuality, and “lived religion” (including materiality and popular devotion). 

From Alana Harris, “’The Writings of Querulous Women’: Dr Anne Bieżanek’s Catholic Birth Control Clinic” in Visions and Vocations:

On 29 November 1963, the British tabloid newspaper, The Daily Mail, carried a headline: “Church Defied. RC Woman Doctor Sets Up Family Planning Clinic.”[i] The article continued:

[T]all, auburn-haired, and the mother of seven young children, the 36-year old doctor said: …“I am taking a stand on something we Catholics cannot sidestep any longer.”[ii]

Dr Anne Bieżanek’s decision to open one of the first Catholic birth control clinics in the world in the front room of her home surgery in Wallasey, Merseyside, would continue to be headline news in the UK and in the United States for the next twelve months.

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The bare facts of Bieżanek’s life – although completely unknown today – were daily fare for a 1960s newspaper reading and television viewing public. She was raised in a Quaker/Anglican household and educated at the progressive Dartington Hall School (and then Dollar Academy when her family moved to Scotland). She completed a medical degree at the University of Aberdeen and began medical practice in psychiatry in 1951, marrying early to Polish émigré Jan Bieżanek. Most explanations of her public activities in the early 1960s, however, dwelt on the string of ten pregnancies and seven children in thirteen years which led her to question the Catholic Church’s reproductive teaching.

Bieżanek’s idiosyncratic re-negotiation of spiritual and sexual politics was ground-breaking in articulating a ‘modern’ Catholic approach to love and sex and in anticipating the cacophony of such voices elicited by Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.[iii]

[i] Daily Mail, 29 November 1963, 7.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] For a survey of these reactions across Europe (including a detailed study of Britain), see Alana Harris (ed.), The Schism of ’68: Catholics, Contraception and Humanae Vitae in Europe, 1945-1975 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).[/expand]