Sunday, August 26, marked the 98th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which officially granted women the right to vote. And as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, which August 26th is known as now, we think about those incredible women who fought for our right to vote and won. Often, we also think of women who fought (and are continuing to fight) for women’s equality in the workplace. But, there’s another kind of equality that we can thank brave women for: sexual equality.
Without the tireless work of some badass women in history, single women would still be expected to be celibate. We wouldn’t have access to the birth control that makes it safe for us to have sex without fear of pregnancy. And we’d probably still think women can only orgasm when someone sticks a penis inside of them (although, some people really do still think that). So, let’s raise a glass to the women who made it okay for us to have as much (or as little) sex as we want.
Ahead, we celebrate 7 of the women who pioneered conversations about sexuality and sexual health.
Emma Goldman (1869-1940)
In 1917 a U.S. Attorney General wrote, “Emma Goldman is a woman of great ability and of personal magnetism, and her persuasive powers make her an exceedingly dangerous woman.” Goldman gained a reputation for being “exceedingly dangerous” partly for spreading the idea that women should have access to birth control. She was also a hardcore anarchist who spoke with such firey passion that the man who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 credited one of Goldman’s lectures as the inspiration. So, you know, that could also be part of it.
Perhaps because her lectures were so “inspirational,” Goldman was frequently harassed and arrested while speaking about radical reform. So, she worked with the first Free Speech League to insist that all Americans have a right to speech, no matter how radical or controversial.
Although she was active during the time of first-wave feminism, Goldman shunned the suffrage movement and instead called herself an anarchist. She held lectures on politically unpopular ideas like free love, atheism, capitalism, and homosexuality. After Margaret Sanger, who coined the term “birth control,” printed information about contraceptives in a pamphlet called Family Limitation, Goldman took it upon herself to make sure people had access to the information. She distributed the pamphlet and in 1915 went on a nationwide speaking tour to raise awareness about birth control options. In 1916, she was arrested outside of one of her lectures under the Comstock Law, which prohibited the dissemination of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles.” She spent two weeks in prison.
Goldman was deported back to her native Russia in 1919.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
In addition to creating the birth control pamphlet that got Emma Goldman arrested, Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, along with her sister Ethel Byrne and fellow-activist Fania Mindell.
Sanger’s mother died at 50-years-old, partly due to complications from delivering 11 babies and having 7 miscarriages. Inspired by her mother’s pregnancy struggles, Sanger went to Europe to study contraceptive methods, even though educating people about birth control was illegal in the U.S. at the time.
When she came back to the U.S., Sanger was frequently arrested under the Comstock Law for distributing “obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles.” In 1912, she wrote What Every Girl Should Know, in which she argues that both mothers and teachers should clearly explain sexual anatomy in order to rid children of shame about sex. She wrote: “Every girl should first understand herself: she should know her anatomy, including sex anatomy.” (Preach.)
Two years later, Sanger wrote Family Limitations, an instructional pamphlet in which she coined the term “birth control.” And two years after that, Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which the police shut down only nine days later. Sanger spent 30 days in jail after the Brownsville clinic was raided (where she instructed the inmates about birth control).
In 1923, Sanger opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau to distribute birth control to women and to study the long-term effectiveness and side effects of contraceptives. She also incorporated the American Birth Control League, an organization that studied global impacts of population growth, disarmament, and famine. Eventually, the two groups merged to become what we now know as Planned Parenthood. Sanger continued to fight for contraceptive rights and sexual freedom along with other birth control activists, and in 1936 their efforts led to a court ruling that using and talking about birth control would no longer be considered obscene. Legally, birth control information could be distributed in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. It took another 30 years for those rights to be extended to the rest of the country (but birth control was still only legal for married couples until the 1970s).
Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012)
In 1962, when birth control was still illegal in most states for anyone who wasn’t married, Helen Gurley Brown wrote Sex And The Single Girl, a book that argued for single women’s right to have as much sex as they wanted. (The book later inspired a 1964 movie.) At the time, many publishers rejected the book for being too provocative, because it did such scandalous things as encouraging women to pursue men, and suggesting that women actually enjoyed sex (gasp!). When the book eventually was picked up, the publishers omitted a chapter dedicated to birth control. So unmarried women at the time could have sex, they just couldn’t know how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies.
Three years after her book published, Gurley Brown became Editor-In-Chief of Cosmopolitan. But the magazine many now associate with brazen sex advice wasn’t so risque back then. And although the staff at the time was not thrilled with her message, it was Gurley Brown’s influence that turned Cosmo into the go-to mag for learning how to please your man.
Virginia E. Johnson (1925-2013)
If you’ve watched Masters Of Sex, then you’re already familiar with Virginia Johnson’s story. Johnson was first the research assistant for and later wife to William H. Masters, a gynecologist and sex researcher. Together, the two studied sexual responses in hundreds of men and women and published groundbreaking studies that transformed how people understood sexuality.
Many of their participants credited Johnson’s warm and encouraging nature as the reason they felt comfortable enough to participate in Master’s studies (which often required them to masturbate or have sex while hooked up to machines that registered heart rate and other bodily functions). Although Johnson never finished her degree, she’s considered a sexologist for her help in Master’s work. Often, it was her who collected patients’ sexual histories and recorded data as they became sexually aroused.
Masters and Johnson made several important discoveries in their work, many of which broke negative assumptions about how women experience sex. In their 1966 book Human Sexual Response, they established that the clitoris is essential for women to have orgasms and that women can have multiple orgasms during a single sexual experience. After their book was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, it became a bestseller, making it common for people to say words like “clitoris,” “orgasm,” and “masturbation,” for the first time.
In 1964, Masters and Johnson founded the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation (later the Masters and Johnson Institute), where they treated sexual dysfunction until the institute closed in 1994.
Joani Blank (1937-2016)
Anytime you pass a sex toy shop with large glass windows that proudly displays dildos, vibrators, and butt plugs instead of hiding them under seedy lighting, you can thank Joani Blank. In 1977, she founded the first Good Vibrations store, a feminist-leaning sex toy shop and one of the first to be run by a woman.
Blank had noticed that all of the sex toy shops she’d encountered reeked of men. The windows were covered, as if you should be ashamed of the products inside, and often, there would be men watching porn at quarter-operated booths once you got inside. It was a hostile space for women. “Over and over, women would say they were afraid to go into one of those places,” Carol Queen, the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, said in Blank’s obituary.
Prior to opening Good Vibrations, Blank was working at UCSF’s medical school with women who struggled to have orgasms. She encouraged them to try vibrators. And her experiences with these women also informed her plans for the sex toy shop. In addition to having a place that felt safe for women, she wanted to train her staff to be able to answer questions about sex and sexual health. She wanted her customers and her staff to be able to have frank conversations about sex. It was all in an effort to take some of the shame and stigma out of having sex, especially for women.
Loretta Ross (1953-present)
Anytime you’ve ever used the term “reproductive justice,” that was because of Loretta Ross. Ross coined the phrase in 1994 following the International Conference on Population and Development.
Ross is co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, which organizes women of color in the reproductive rights movement. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of social justice and on building a human rights movement that includes everyone. She was co-director of the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, the largest protest march at the time, which saw 1.15 million people gather to advocate for abortion rights, birth control access, and reproductive healthcare.
Ross also started the Women of Color Program for the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the 1980s, where she brought delegations of women of color to international conferences on women’s issues and human rights. In the 1970s, she became one of the first African American women to direct a rape crises center.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!