‘Not Just a Series of Genital Acts’: The Woman Who Revolutionized Sex Education
“Sex involves something you are, not just something you do,” Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone told the Albuquerque Journal in 1967. The frank, former medical director of Planned Parenthood and founder of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS) was known to speak in maxims. In doing so the forgotten trailblazer of sex education shaped the way we think about sex and sexuality today, demanding we consider “healthy sexuality” a “birthright” and becoming a vital “voice of reason” at a time when attitudes towards sex were rooted in fear and repression—but were, critically, rapidly changing.
Calderone lived through almost the entire 20th century, watching as movements in birth control, feminism, and sex education overlapped and shifted. Born in 1904 to an upper-class, bohemian family, Calderone spent her first ten years in Paris as her parents’ marriage frayed: Although her father was a prominent photographer who was friends with Picasso and Matisse—when Mary was six, a famous story goes, she instructed the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi to give his birds more uplifted heads, and he did it—her mother was steeped in prudish Victorian values; she did things like make the young Mary wear metal “mittens” to bed to prevent her from masturbating, a policy that Calderone later credited as an influence on her career as a sexual liberator. When World War I broke out, the family moved to the United States, where Calderone’s mother was from; the couple separated, and Mary chose to stay with her father in New York, where she attended private school. In 1921—five years after Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood—she started at Vassar, majoring in chemistry.