The Grandmother of Sex Education

By Jeffrey P. Moran

Like many other Vassar freshmen in the Class of 1925 and afterward, Mary Steichen made certain she did not miss the notorious "sex lecture" in her required first-year hygiene course. Although she had grown up in France and New York, Steichen believed she was tremendously ignorant about carnal matters. Here at last was an opportunity for Science to disperse the fog of repression.

Despite Steichen’s high expectations, the lecture was hardly an epiphany. "Now, girls," the college physician sagely began, "keep your affections wrapped in cotton wool until Mr. Right comes along." From that high point, the doctor toured with a minimum of detail the facts of reproduction, and then turned her charges out.

It was an inauspicious beginning for Mary Steichen Calderone, who would become known in later decades as "the grandmother of sex education," and "the Grande Dame of sexual enlightenment." Before she died in October 1998, at the age of 94, the Vassar graduate had helped work a revolution in the way educators and even ordinary Americans approached education about sex. Before she arrived, sex education was typically a series of vague moral lessons focused on disease and reproduction; she transformed sex education into sexuality education, and fought to make the lessons frank, nonjudgmental, and comprehensive. People magazine claimed that Mary Steichen Calderone had done for sex education what Margaret Sanger had done for birth control and Rachel Carson for the environment.

The freshman hygiene lectures notwithstanding, Calderone’s approach to sex education grew out of her unique background. Born in New York City in 1904 to the former Clara E. Smith and the photographer Edward Steichen, with Carl Sandburg as her uncle, Mary Steichen grew to maturity in the kind of bohemian affluence that can mark the families of particularly successful artists. She was also reared a Quaker, and her faith later played a large role in shaping her adult commitments. After spending enough time in France to speak French better than English, Mary Steichen returned to Manhattan at the age of 10 to attend the exclusive Brearley School. "Steich," as she was called, was a "brilliant and well-organized student," according to a classmate, and upon graduation she made the short trip from Manhattan to Vassar College, where she majored in drama.

After Vassar, the brilliant young woman foundered. For three years, Steichen attempted to become a professional actress before accepting that she would never make it to the top ranks. Her first marriage, too, fell apart–a disaster she latter attributed, in part, to "sexual repression." Because she was from a wealthy family and because this was New York in the 1920s, Steichen began seeing a Freudian analyst, who wisely advised her to enter medical school.

Only in 1932, when she began to study medicine at the University of Rochester, did Steichen start down the path to her destiny. Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone (she married Dr. Frank Calderone in 1941) emerged from her medical training with a deep commitment to the public health profession as a force for change in society. Limited as a woman to a narrow range of choices for medical practice, Calderone toiled for 10 years as a physician in the Great Neck, New York, public school system. In 1953, however, she received an offer to become medical director for the rapidly expanding Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Worried colleagues advised her she might lose her reputation by working for the controversial organization, but Calderone was undaunted. "I have no reputation to lose," she told them.

Although Calderone would become best known for her libertarian and "radical" inclinations, her commitments at Planned Parenthood and afterward grew out of her Quaker faith and a sexual ideology that was becoming, among the college-educated middle class, commonplace. Since the 1920s, when Calderone had attended college and married for the first time, middle-class Americans had begun to idealize marriage as an institution for companionship and personal fulfillment. Naturally, sexual relations were an important part of this new scheme, but the threat of unwanted pregnancies could still take much of the pleasure out of intimacy. As the medical director of Planned Parenthood from 1953 to 1965, Calderone justified birth control by appealing primarily to women’s right "to develop unhampered a constantly deepening relationship with their husbands," by expressing their love without "fear of an unwanted pregnancy."

In her greatest triumph at PlannedParenthood, Calderone in 1964 successfully overturned the American Medical Association’s longstanding opposition to birth control. For the first time, the AMA proclaimed that the medical profession had a responsibility to disseminate information on all aspects of reproduction, including birth control. Further, Calderone got the AMA to agree to cooperate with all "sufficiently medical" organizations in the field of human reproduction.

Concern for marriage and sexual responsibility lay behind Calderone’s other activities at Planned Parenthood. Although in 1958 she organized a national conference that launched the movement to legalize abortion, Calderone combined her support for a relaxation of abortion laws with a stress upon "preventative medicine," such as sex education, to encourage "higher standards of sexual conduct and. . .a greater sense of responsibility toward pregnancy." And, though Calderone wrote a marriage manual in the early 1960s with the inviting title, Release from Sexual Tensions, she denied that sex was the most important aspect of marriage, and certainly denied that sexual tensions were "an excuse for indulging in premarital intercourse." In her career at Planned Parenthood, Calderone assigned great importance to sex and sexual freedom, but only insofar as they buttressed the marriage relationship.

Despite her successes, Calderone grew dissatisfied with her position in the early 1960s. Her meager salary was only a small part of the problem. Over the course of her decade with Planned Parenthood, Calderone had received hundreds of plaintive letters–almost every one of them, she thought, demonstrating a stunning ignorance about sexuality. Further, like other professionals in the area of sex, Calderone in the early 1960s was receiving a flood of invitations to speak or write about the "sexual revolution" that seemed to be taking place on college campuses. Although she tried to meet these requests, Calderone grew tired of carrying the entire educational load of an association that had no separate staff in public health nursing or health education. She was ready to jump.

In 1964, at the age of 60, Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone therefore quit her position as medical director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. With a New York

office consisting of herself, a secretary, and a typewriter perched atop a couple of orange crates, Dr. Calderone launched SIECUS, or the Sex (later Sexuality) Information and Education Council of the United States. It was an audacious name for an organization that so far counted all of five people as members, but Calderone’s energy and reputation soon garnered hundreds of influential allies, and SIECUS’s power soon spread well beyond its limited membership circle.

Unlike earlier generations of sex educators, Calderone and her allies concentrated almost defiantly upon sexuality as a potentially positive force. "We must block our habit of considering sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘controlled,’" Calderone admonished. "Emphasis must be on sex as a vital life force to be utilized." SIECUS followed Calderone’s

libertarian impulses in maintaining that sex education should not force sexual standards upon anyone, but should make information available for young people and adults to

reach their own moral decisions. Above all, Calderone and SIECUS expanded the definition of sexuality beyond the confines of intercourse. "Sex is not just something you do in marriage, in bed, in the dark, in one position," she explained. "Sex is what it means to be a man or a woman."

As the "sexual revolution" intensified in the mid-1960s, Calderone found her organization much in demand. Parents and school administrators appealed to sex educators to help them turn the rising tide of teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and general promiscuity. As an umbrella organization of educators and social scientists, SIECUS coordinated and contributed to hundreds of programs nationwide, prompting Time to refer to Calderone, then in her 60s, as "the grandmother of sex education."

Calderone surely knew that her call for a positive, nonjudgmental sex education in the schools would arouse controversy, but she did not anticipate the fury of conservative reaction. Led by a former pamphleteer from the John Birch Society, religious activists across the nation formed opposition groups with such loopy acronyms as MOMS (Mothers Organized for Moral Stability) and MOTOREDE (Movement to Restore Decency).

Although SIECUS did not itself organize any actual sex education courses, opponents quickly focused their fire on what one called "the SIECUS stinkpot." Opponents fabricated stories about sex educators who forced boys and girls to "explore" each other in closets, and hinted darkly that sex education was somehow a crucial step on the path to communistic domination. Mary Calderone found herself roundly abused, and one opponent even dug up the information–damning in the eyes of conservatives–that in her first marriage she had gone to the altar pregnant. By the end of 1969 Calderone was guaranteed to be picketed at almost every speech.

She refused to debate her attackers. "I just won’t stoop to an interchange," she told an interviewer in 1970. "I don’t go on platforms with liars, deliberate liars." Calderone was perhaps too genteel for gutter politics. "She seemed to speak not with the voice of a person but with the voice of a class," remembered one interviewer, "a voice that had been bred in generations of parlor and salon gatherings."

When Calderone finally deigned to answer her opponents, she chose to write an article in the Vassar Quarterly. No doubt she gained numerous new supporters among her fellow alumnae, but this did little to refute the conservatives’ charges. Playboy magazine undertook the major task of refuting conservative charges against sex education, without Calderone’s help.

Calderone stepped down as executive director of SIECUS shortly after the controversies subsided, but continued on as president from 1975 to 1982. She had already introduced a positive approach and moral neutrality to sex education. Under her leadership in the 1970s, SIECUS brought more novel concerns into the mainstream of sex education, such as the dangers of sexism and a sympathetic treatment of homosexuality. Calderone advocated tolerance of homosexuality–a reasonably liberal position for the day–though she still hoped for a medical or psychological "cure" for it. Homosexuality seldom arose as an issue, however; everyone was far more concerned about heterosexual misbehavior. These days, sex educators are more likely to accept that young people will become sexually active well before marriage.

But Mary Steichen Calderone, who stood as a model for sexual openness and value neutrality, was deeply ambivalent about the "sexual revolution." As she told a gathering of Vassar undergraduates in 1964, a fulfilling marriage remained her primary goal. "I have a passionate desire," she said, "that young people, who are today so free, not only should understand and respect, but also should aspire to and achieve, the permanent man-woman relationship" of marriage. Thus Calderone had, by her own admission, come almost full circle. "Now girls," she concluded in her Vassar address, "keep your affections wrapped in cotton wool until marriage…."

Jeffrey P. Moran is assistant professor of history at the University of Kansas. This essay is adapted from his book Teaching Sex: Shaping Adolescence in the 20th Century, published in May 2000 by Harvard University Press.