We stand on the shoulders of giants. Or in the case of sexual and reproductive rights, giantesses. Most people have heard of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the founder of what we now know as Planned Parenthood and often referred to as the “mother” of the birth control movement or Betty Freidan, writer of the Feminine Mystique and founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which — after the passage of Roe V. Wade –became NARAL Pro-Choice America. And of course, we all know the name Roe, even if we don’t know that her real name was Norma McCorvey. But what about the women who came before them and after them – the women who made their work possible, and in turn, the women who built on the work Sanger, Freidan, and McCorvey did?
Here are seven lesser known but just as badass women who changed the history of sex and reproductive rights in the US.
1. Puerto Rican and enslaved Black women
Before we talk about any individual women, let’s discuss the elephant in the room: Many, if not most, of the pioneers of the sex and reproductive rights movement in the US were racist and pro-eugenics, and many of the successes of the movement are tainted with the blood of women of color.
Two glaring examples stand out: First, the speculum, still used today for pelvic exams, was developed by a 19th century doctor who performed his experiments on enslaved Black women – without anesthesia, because he believed that black people didn’t feel pain.
Second, the first oral contraceptive developed (known as Enovid) was approved by the FDA in 1960. While the invention of the birth control pill is something has drastically changed the lives of women for the better, it had a high cost. The doctor who Sanger collaborated with to do the research did his clinical trials in Puerto Rico to avoid any legal issues on the mainland. Basing the operation in birth control clinics run by a known eugenicists who believed that Puerto Ricans and other people living in poverty should be eradicated, young women were recruited and used as test subjects without telling them what they were taking, what the risks might be, or even that they were part of a clinical trial.
In both cases and many others, progress for reproductive rights and health was made at the expense of brown and black bodies. Let’s focus on the women that were harmed so we could be where we are, rather than the men who harmed them, and never forget that for all the good that has come out of the movement, terrible things were done in the name of sexual and reproductive rights.
2. Mary Steichen Calderone, M.D. (1904-1998)
Remembered for her direct approach and maxims like “sex is not just a series of genital acts,” Mary Calderone was a staunch supporter of sex and reproductive rights. As the medical director of Planned Parenthood in 1964, Calderone overturned the American Medical Association’s policy that prevented physicians from informing patients about birth control.
That same year, she left Planned Parenthood to shift her focus to improving sex education, founding the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which promoted non-judgmental, positive sex education curriculums in schools. At the time, sex education tended to address two topics: abstinence, and how to be a good wife.
Calderone, while still preferring the idea of waiting until marriage, believed that people should have a greater awareness around sexual health. Her tireless efforts to normalize discussions of all parts of sexuality – physical, moral, and social – drastically shifted the way we talk about these things, and paved the way for us to talk about complex topics such as STIs, HIV/AIDs, and unwanted pregnancy. Essentially, Calderone did for sex education what Sanger did for birth control, and was later dubbed the “grandmother of sex education.”
3. Estelle Griswold (1900-1981)
A civil rights activist and feminist, Griswold’s life path eventually led her to take on one of the last states left that prohibited married couples from buying contraceptives: Connecticut. Tired of ferrying women to New York or Rhode Island to get the birth control they couldn’t in Connecticut, she decided to take the legal route. And lucky for us, she fought the law and she won: In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, declaring that prohibiting married couples from obtaining and using birth control was a violation of their privacy, which is guaranteed by the Constitution. Eventually, this right to privacy was extended to unmarried couples as well.
Basically? She told the government to get out of our bedrooms, a precedent which was later used as justification for both Roe v. Wade and the decision to strike down anti-sodomy laws.
4. Heather Booth (b.1945) and the Jane Collective
Heather Booth was just a college student in 1965 when a friend came to her with a problem: She was pregnant, and she didn’t want to be. Booth, using her connections with the Civil Rights movement, found a doctor to perform the abortion.
Word quickly and quietly spread after that, and more and more women came forward seeking help with unwanted pregnancies. Booth teamed up with like-minded students and the Jane Collective was born. They would find doctors willing to give abortions, counsel women, give referrals, and even follow up with the women who contacted them and had the procedures.
While they remained clandestine, they were able to reach women by advertising in student and undergrad newspapers, telling pregnant women who needed help to “Call Jane.” The Collective disbanded and Booth moved on to fight for accessible childcare after abortion was legalized in 1973.
5. Helen Rodriguez Trias (1929-2001)
While white, middle class women were fighting for the right to enjoy sex with their husbands without fear of unwanted pregnancy, women of color were often in a different boat: their right to choose to have children was being denied. Between 1930 and 1970, approximately one-third of Puerto Rican women were forcibly sterilized, usually done immediately after childbirth, either with coercion (and while they were still under the influence of surgery drugs) or without any consent at all, leading Puerto Rico to have one of, if not the, highest rate of sterilization in the world. For Native women, that number is estimated between 25 and 50 percent, and for black women, sterilization happened at at least twice the rate of white women.
Helen Rodriguez Trias, herself Puerto Rican, was all too aware of what was happening on the island – both in terms of forced sterilizations and using Puerto Rico as a lab for the development of birth control technology. While she was a supporter of birth control and abortion rights, her focus was on ending sterilization abuse and helping underserved communities access neonatal care.
A founding member of many organizations related reproductive rights organizations and groups, including several dealing with ending forced sterilization, Rodriguez Trias is credited with drafting federal sterilization guidelines requiring a woman’s written consent in a language they could understand, as well as a waiting period between the written consent and the procedure – the same guidelines we use today. She also helped expand public health services for low-income and minority women and children both in the US and worldwide, and later worked on behalf of women of color with HIV. Her focus on low-income women and women of color, communities all too often ignored, or worse, was revolutionary for a reproductive rights movement born of wealth and white privilege.
6. Carol Leigh aka the Scarlet Harlot (b.1951)
While the sex and reproductive rights movement at large would have preferred to ignore sex workers altogether, Carol Leigh would be having none of that, thankyouverymuch. A prostitute who was raped one night and chose not to report it because she feared she would be shut down – or worse – she then turned to activism.
At a conference in the late 70s, the discussion was focused on the “sex use industry,” a term Leigh felt objectified her and other prostitutes, and trivialized their agency. Instead, Leigh coined the term “sex worker” and “sex work industry” in an attempt to create tolerance for sex workers both within and outside the women’s rights movement. To this day, she still creates films meant to normalize and humanize sex workers, while pushing for decriminalization policies. Because, after all – sex isn’t just about reproduction, it’s about pleasure, too. And bodily autonomy? Not just about reproduction.
7. Loretta Ross (b.1953)
By the age of 23, Loretta Ross had been through hell. First raped at 11, she was again raped at 15 by a distant cousin, and gave birth to her son as a result. In her early 20s, despite it being known as dangerous, she – like many other poor and low-income women – was given the Dalkon Sheild, an early type of IUD. Eventually, she developed an infection, and when she went to the hospital for treatment, she walked away sterilized – without her consent.
A longtime feminist activist, she began to focus more on reproductive rights activism after her hysterectomy. But Ross felt that the movement, led primarily by wealthy white women, was too focused on abortion rights and had ignored the issues impacting women of color. She began to advocate for a more holistic approach that included not only the right not to have children, but the right to have children under circumstances the parents chose, as well as the right to parent children in safe and sustainable communities. Ross, along with a few others, coined the term “reproductive justice” to describe this approach. Framing the conversation in terms of both social justice and human rights, rather than just personal bodily autonomy or privacy, revolutionized the conversation and the goals of the movement.
In 1997, Ross co-founded SisterSong, a national nonprofit dedicated to reproductive justice for women of color, with Luz Rodriguez and 14 others. Nearly a quarter of a century later, SisterSong is still a vocal and adamant advocate for women of color, and an important critical voice for a movement that still has many failings when it comes to race and class.
While the importance of Sanger, Freidan, and McCorvey can’t be ignored, these women and dozens of others deserve to be remembered too. Without them, we wouldn’t have the rights we do – and without women like Leigh and Ross, who are still fighting the good fight, we would almost certainly have had a lot more losses in recent years than we have.