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Piddington, Marion Louisa (1869–1950)

by Ann Curthoys

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Marion Louisa Piddington (1869-1950), eugenist and sex educator, was born on 23 December 1869 in Sydney, youngest of four children of Canon Thomas O'Reilly, Anglican clergyman, and his second wife Rosa, née Smith. She had two older half-brothers; Edith Badham was a cousin. From 1882 she taught at a boys' school, almost certainly her mother's Hayfield school at Prospect. At St Andrew's Cathedral she married Albert Bathurst Piddington on 21 January 1896. In 1903 her elder son died at birth. After the birth in 1906 of Ralph O'Reilly, on whom she doted, she was advised not to bear another child. In 1912 she visited Britain with her husband. On their return she was temporarily estranged from her brother Dowell O'Reilly because of his role in Albert's appointment and rapid resignation as a justice of the High Court of Australia.

In London Albert had attended the 1912 International Eugenics Congress: Marion became intensely interested in the subject and in 1916, under the pseudonym 'Lois', published Via Nuova; or Science and Maternity. Couched in the form of a utopian short story, this proposed that many women unable to gain fit husbands as a consequence of World War I could still fulfil their racial duty of motherhood by artificial insemination. She wrote to Sigmund Freud about the idea in 1921. She argued for a lifting of the stigma from unmarried motherhood in her 1923 pamphlet The Unmarried Mother and Her Child. In the early 1920s she was involved in the Workers' Educational Association eugenics circle, and was profoundly influenced by the works of Marie Stopes, with whom she corresponded, on matters such as sexual conduct within marriage and birth control. She and Albert jointly and successfully campaigned for removal of Stopes's Wise Parenthood (1918) from a customs ban in 1923.

That year Mrs Piddington began sex education classes. From her numerous talks she wrote Tell Them! or the Second Stage of Mothercraft (1926), which urged parents to answer their children's questions about sex frankly, recommended the use of animal stories as a method of explanation for young children and strongly urged mothers to prevent their boys from masturbating (they should provide trousers without pockets). She saw masturbation as the source of adolescent and unrestrained sexuality, leading to the spread of venereal disease and 'dysgenic' or 'haphazard' matings. Marion stressed women's right to sexual fulfilment within marriage, and thought that both sexual restraint outside marriage and happiness within it would be more easily achieved once men and women both understood the female cycle of 'sex rhythms', where peaks of desire occurred every fortnight.

She belonged to that branch of eugenic thought which came to support birth control, as a means of controlling human reproduction and thus achieving human betterment. In 1926 she was involved in setting up the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales for which she gave numerous classes on sex education. By mid-1928 she had fallen out with them, but continued to run her own classes and formed a rival organization, the Institute of Family Relations, in 1931. The institute provided sexual, marriage and contraceptive advice. She wrote in the late 1920s and early 1930s for Smith's Weekly and such journals as Herself and Health and Physical Culture on sex education and sexual morality, as well as on the need to sterilize the mentally deficient, a classic eugenist concern.

In the 1940s the Piddingtons lived at Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains; she was widowed in 1945. Survived by her son, Marion Piddington died at Castlecrag, Sydney, on 2 February 1950 and was cremated with Anglican rites. She was significant in eugenic debate in Australia on a wide range of sexual and reproductive concerns, and in the growth of sex education and contraceptive information. She defied modern categories such as 'puritan' or 'libertarian', being in some curious measure both.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Roe, Nine Australian Progressives (Brisb, 1984)
  • Austrailan Highway, 1 Dec 1921
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 May 1923
  • Age (Melbourne), 25, 28, 29 May, 1 June 1923
  • Marie Stopes papers (British Library)
  • D. O'Reilly papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann Curthoys, 'Piddington, Marion Louisa (1869–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/piddington-marion-louisa-8044/text14029, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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