Access to comprehensive sexual education and healthcare has always been a cause worth fighting for, and it’s important to remember where we started, where we’ve come, and who has helped us get here. I’ve selected five women from different periods in history who have each made an impact on this cause. Whether they contributed to the founding of Planned Parenthood or used their personal experiences to educate others, these legendary women have had a positive influence on generations and will continue to influence generations to come.
Fania Mindell is one of the earliest and most prominent political activists who worked towards furthering access to birth control for women. She was born in 1984, and immigrated to the U.S. from Minsk, Russia in 1906 with her parents. In 1916, she met the now-infamous Margaret Sanger and Ethyl Byrne, and together they founded the first birth control clinic in the United States. It was called the “Brownsville Clinic” and was located in Brooklyn. This clinic gained national attention and led to the arrest of all three women for ‘distributing obscene material’. Though this clinic eventually closed, it is considered to be the basis for what is now known as Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Sanger is best known for founding the American Birth Control League, which is now known as Planned Parenthood. She was born in 1879 in Corning, NY. Sanger gained the attention of media when she wrote two columns for the socialist magazine, New York Call. These articles addressed sexual education and were titled “What Every Mother Should Know” (which ran from 1911-12) and “What Every Girl Should Know” (which ran from 1912-13). Many have argued that her candid and honest views on sex contributed greatly to judicial cases that worked towards the legalization of contraception. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, and later the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in 1929. She also was the president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation from 1952-1959.
Audre Lorde was an outspoken poet and civil rights activist, born in 1934 in Harlem, New York. Lorde focused on the intersection of race and sexuality, as she herself was a black and lesbian woman. She wrote an essay titled “The Erotic as Power” in 1978, which described the concept of female sexuality as pertaining to the overall enjoyment and fulfillment of passion as opposed to revolving solely around the act of heteronormative intercourse. The erotic is a source of strength and goes against the patriarchy that is instilled in us with regard to concepts of sex and our capacity for enjoyment. Her essays on both the erotic and sexuality, as well as intersectional feminism are often still referred to and cited today.
Ruth Westheimer, known more widely as Dr. Ruth, is a sex therapist who hosted a popular radio show called Sexually Speaking, where she discussed a plethora of sex related topics openly and with humor. She was born in 1928 and is a Holocaust survivor whose parents are believed to have been killed in Auschwitz. Her radio show was broadcasted from 1980-90, and she wrote around 40 books on sex as well as hosted a number of television shows that aired on the Lifetime TV Network. She gained initial popularity and a devoted fan base due to her candid nature on the subject of sexuality, as well as her sense of humor when sharing on the topic. Today, she has been a guest on The Tonight Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The View, and more.
Eileen Kelly is a 24 year old peer sex educator who uses an extensive social media reach (including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr) as a tool to promote comprehensive sex education aimed at young adults. She started a blog called Killer and a Sweet Thang, which features articles written by young people for young people. These articles are first-hand experiences covering not only issues of sex, but also relationships, health (mental and physical), and identity. What makes this blog different than any before is it’s relatability in the way it openly conveys the power of owning your sexuality, as well as the importance of sexual health. Kelly has previously noted that her inspiration to pursue the topic of teaching about sexuality originated from lack of exposure to proper sex education prior to starting college. She’s rightfully been deemed a ‘modern day Dr. Ruth’.
Cover photo: Hannah Leibovich