We’re celebrating International Women’s Day by honoring some remarkable women, past and present, who have worked to shape the way we understand sexual health. History is a living, breathing thing, and it’s being made every day – which is why we’re also including some contemporary movers and shakers.
The truth is, we’re all still learning. And it’s important that we acknowledge the ways that women’s work – and the people doing it – are often unheralded and unsung in our history textbooks, yet their contributions have shaped our experiences when it comes to the most intimate aspects of our lives.
Without further ado, here are some women you definitely want to know.
Researcher and sex educator
In 1976, Shere Hite (b 1942) shocked the world with her magnum opus “The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality”. Some of her conclusions are easy to take for granted now – like how most women need clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm, and women can have orgasms without men – but at the time, they were seismic.
She was inspired to shatter Freudian narratives of women’s sexuality after meetings with the National Organization for Women, where participants revealed that they didn’t know much about how the female orgasm worked. Her questionnaires, answered anonymously, revealed that women’s sexual experiences were quite different in reality from what they were told they “should be”.
And people were very, very angry about it. Media attacks on Hite became so extreme that she actually renounced her American citizenship and settled in Germany, where she published more work about how individuals – men and women alike – regard their intimate lives.
“Male sexology was laboratory based,” said Hite in her last interview. “Mine focused on real women’s experiences as recounted by them.” It might be hard to believe now, but she was one of the first who listened.
Born in 1912 in North Carolina, Kenner was an inventor from a family of inventors. She still holds the record for the most patents ever filed by a Black woman – simple, ingenious devices aimed at making people’s everyday lives easier.
And her most notable innovation was the sanitary belt, an ancestor of the maxi pad. She got the idea in the 1920s, a time when most women used rags to contain their flow – but rags didn’t stay in place very well. It was easy to stain clothing, a major drawback at a time when the household washing was done by hand. Kenner’s sanitary belt was designed to stabilize homemade pads and spare women’s undergarments.
She couldn’t afford to file the patent until 1957. Although other belts were patented before hers, Kenner worked tirelessly to improve her design. And the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company, who were initially interested in producing her version, rejected it when they found out she was Black.
The world has moved on from sanitary belts (though readers of earlier editions of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” may remember the reference). But once again, it’s easy to take for granted that women’s health was once a dark and private subject. Though racism prevented her from profiting off her invention, Mary Kenner’s empathetic pragmatism foretold a new era on the horizon.
A few years ago, there was a vogue for clitoris-shaped jewelry – the complete, floral form of the only organ that exists solely for sexual pleasure, not just the small nub of erectile tissue that’s visible from the outside. The clitoris is a much more complex structure than a glance would indicate, and Australian urologist Helen O’Connell was the first person to show us its true shape.
As a medical student O’Connell was angered by the illustrations in her textbooks, which featured lavish illustrations of the penis and reduced the clitoris to an afterthought. She even enrolled in a doctorate program specifically to study clitoral anatomy.
“There’s the norm that’s the male, and then we’ve got kind of this subset over here who are not male,” she says. “And their unique characteristics are differences … there was a feeling that they were not whole people in the way that these other people are whole people and deserving of having their body parts having a full description.”
And in 1998, she published the first comprehensive anatomical study of the clitoris. Her work revealed the true complexity of clitoral structure. As we’ve written here, its depth, nerve-richness, and surprising internal size inform the many facets of sexual response in people who are lucky enough to own clitorises – and we would never know what it all really looked like without Helen O’Connell.
When asked about the clitoral sculpture trend that her work inspired, O’Connell said “It’s fantastic! Who would ever have imagined something like that happening?”
Health care activist
In the era of Black Lives Matter, racial disparities in healthcare – especially related to maternal and sexual health – are finally becoming part of the public conversation. Across the board, Black women especially experience much poorer health outcomes. And Byllye Avery has been working to rectify those disparities in the field of reproductive health since the early 70s.
Born in Georgia in 1937, Avery was working as a special education teacher when her young husband died suddenly from a heart attack brought about by undiagnosed high blood pressure. His death inspired Avery’s commitment to improving education and access to healthcare in the Black community.
Avery went on to found the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the only national organization exclusively dedicated to improving health and wellness among Black women. Her work provided a new framework for healthcare access, reproductive rights, and the effects of institutional oppression on people’s wellbeing. Her tireless advocacy for reproductive freedom, and her devotion to raising awareness of how racism, poverty, and violence lead directly to negative health outcomes, continues to this day.
Masturbation and pleasure advocate
Masturbation guru Betty Dodson (b. 1929) started out as an artist, living and working in Manhattan from 1950 until the end of her life. Her journey of sexual self-discovery began after her divorce in 1965. With cultural mores shifting rapidly and the first rumblings of the sexual revolution underway, she began to make a name for herself as a frank, outspoken and pragmatic advocate for self-love and pleasure.
She may even have been the first person to recommend the Hitachi Magic Wand handheld massager as a masturbation aid, and she showed women how to use it effectively in small groups beginning in the late 60s. Indeed, Dodson soon became known as the queen of the masturbation workshop, bringing women together to explore their bodies in sex-positive, nonjudgmental settings for decades. And her memoir, “Sex for One”, has been translated into 25 languages.
So if you love your vibrator, you might just have Betty Dodson to thank!
Midwife and Indigenous activist
Born in 1980 in Waterflow, New Mexico, midwife Nicole Gonzales describes herself as “Navajo, and my clan is Tl’aashchi’I, Red Bottom clan, born for Tachii’nii, Red Running into the Water clan. Hashk’aa hadzohi, Yucca fruit-strung-out-in-a line clan, and Naasht’ezhi dine’e, Zuni clan.”
She says that her experiences growing up on and off the Navajo reservation informed her belief that traditional healing practices and philosophies about health and wellness were vital to the care she provided when working as a Certified Nurse Midwife.
Gonzales is the founder of Changing Woman Initiative, a nonprofit organization with a mission to renew cultural birth knowledge as a way to reclaim Indigenous sovereignty of women’s medicine. With conventional healthcare historically inadequate or inaccessible to Indigenous communities, who are often mistreated or misunderstood by mainstream medicine, CWI aims to use the Midwifery wellness framework to address health disparities and provide a decolonized health care delivery model.
As a mentor, activist and advocate, Gonzales’ work may forever change the way we think about the intersections of tradition, healthcare, and people’s medical and emotional needs – as well as uplifting communities that have been historically underserved.
Women’s work continues to change the world – and we’re here for it.
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