In her own mind, Mary Steichen Calderone was hardly radical. She was a practicing Quaker and a well-regarded doctor; a mother of three, she expressed pride in her role as “a mother and a grandmother and a “great-grandmother.” Even at the height of her fame, Calderone would criticize Sixties libertinism as “dirty-mindedness,” criticized Women’s Lib and admitted that she “certainly wasn’t for” homosexuality (though she regularly criticized society’s habitual homophobia). From outward appearances, she was an unlikely revolutionary.
But if Calderone wasn’t a revolutionary, she certainly wasn’t a conventional woman of her time. Her father was famous photographer Edward Steichen; as a child in 1900s New York, she brushed shoulders with artists like Pablo Picasso and her uncle Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer. She earned a Bachelor’s in chemistry, then pursued an acting career which resulted in a failed marriage, two children and a bout with depression. Calderone recovered, then remade herself as a doctor: she graduated from Columbia in 1942, marrying Dr. Frank Calderone, the future administrator of the World Health Organization.
One profile described Calderone as a Woman for All Seasons: she was “an independent Republican, a gourmet cook, an adept horticulturalist and an accomplished sailor.” But her main passion proved to be medical education. In 1953 she became the medical director of Planned Parenthood, reasoning that she had “no established practice, nothing to lose, and no qualified male physician would have taken it.” She immediately courted controversy by authorizing clinics to provide patients with information about birth control, which triggered a heavily-publicized clash with the American Medical Association.
By 1964, however, repeated clashes with Planned Parenthood’s leadership convinced Calderone to go her own way. She cofounded the Sexuality Information and Educational Council of the United States (SIECUS), which proposed updating the nation’s sex education models. Speaking with educators and sex experts across the country, Calderone was appalled by the lax, if not existent modes of sexual education that existed, enabled by a “sexphobic” society that all but refused to acknowledge sex existed. SIECUS, per its founding statement, sought to “dignify it by openness of approach, study and scientific research.”
Calderone’s main goal was to “put sexuality into the field of health rather than the field of morals.” Mountains of letters and telegraphs from confused teenagers and concerned parents convinced her that this was the only possible approach. Open discussion of sex and sexual mores, she felt, could only benefit society. Women are stigmatized by sexual double standards and denial of their bodily autonomy; male friendship and self-image are “seriously impeded” by cultural misogyny and “the almost pathological fear of homosexuality.” All of which, she argued, could be resolved by “a four-letter word ending in K…talk.”
Certainly, the SIECUS-suggested curricula (“Guidelines for Sexuality Education: Kindergarten through 12th Grade,” first issued in 1965) now seem remarkably tame. SIECUS introduced the subject through animal reproduction, including experiments showing the development of embryos in eggs for elementary students. Older children receive modest instruction about the “birds and the bees”; the function of genitalia, hormones, sexual arousal and courtship. Throughout Calderone encouraged engagement with students, the willingness to confront awkward questions and confirm that adolescent angst over masturbation, menstruation and wet dreams were perfectly normal. Classes would discuss birth control without endorsing it; homosexuality, polyamory and other unconventional lifestyles could be broached at a school or teacher’s discretion.
Overall, however, the main thrust of SIECUS was reinforcement of a student’s normalcy. “Most people, of course, think that sex is something you do,” Calderone advised. “It is not. It’s something you are. Your sexuality is yourself, as the total person you are.” It was not, she felt, a matter of “endorsing” sexual behavior or pushing boundaries. She expressed preferring monogamous relationships to others, and labeled promiscuity “a sign of immaturity and social imbalance.” Rather, sex was something above strictly moral concerns: it simply was. Better to understand it, she argued, than to remain ignorant and inflict physical and psychological harm on children.
In the five years after its release, a swath of mainstream organizations endorsed Calderone’s curricula. Groups as diverse as the YMCA, the American Medical Association and the US Catholic Conference gave SIECUS support in the late ’60s. Even Christianity Today, Billy Graham’s house publication, expressed reservations about some of SIECUS’s methods but viewed them as, on the balance, helpful. A consensus seemed to form: sex ed was here, and the only questions remaining were how to implement it.
Rarely, however, does true consensus emerge on an issue as inflammatory as sex. By 1969, conservatives from Spiro Agnew (“Main Street is not going to turn into Smut Alley!”) to Orange County activists and the nascent Christian Right found attacking sexual permissiveness and the “flood of hardcore pornography” inundating Americans a reliable source of outrage. It didn’t seem enough to attack Playboy, Penthouse and other smut peddlers, protected as they were by loosened obscenity laws. The problem must lie elsewhere – a cultural malaise, a general indifference towards morals, a decay of social standards. And educators, particularly women who talked about sex, were an easy target.
From California, Max Rafferty announced his loud opposition to SIECUS’s program, declaring sexual education unfit for his state’s schools. “People are not discouraged from becoming safe crackers by learning how to manipulate tumblers in the dark,” he scoffed, insisting upon “the ancient truth that illicit and premarital sex is an offense against both God and man.” Sex education encouraged “chilling selfishness and complete disregard for others,” he continued, and “breaks down all lasting values.”
The John Birch Society, always in the vanguard of backlash, followed suit. Robert Welch accused SIECUS of “keep[ing] our high school youth obsessed with sex” and promoting “filthy language, squalid dress, lewd behavior and disrespect for authority.” Welch created the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE), which printed alarmist propaganda branding sex education a communist plot (one of its directors was Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, a segregationist who won office after chasing Black customers out of his restaurant with an ax handle). “It is no accident that Communists and others long associated with this conspiracy are among the staunchest advocates of the drive for continuous sex education in our schools,” its pamphlets screamed.
But Calderone’s principal nemesis was Billy James Hargis, an Arkansas evangelist, radio broadcaster, sometime speechwriter for Joe McCarthy and full-time opponent of “mongrelization of the races.” Hargis, historian Heather Hendershot writes, was no fringe figure but “a politically engaged pundit disseminating his ideas on hundreds of radio and television stations.” His Christian Crusade mobilized a heated campaign against Calderone, fanning the emanations from Orange County fever swamps into a nationwide backlash against sex education.
The Christian Crusade summarized their argument in a pamphlet asking, Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place for Raw Sex? This literary masterwork was crafted by Hargis’s “education director” Gordon V. Drake, a one-time guidance counselor who elsewhere attacked SIECUS for printing cartoons depicting interracial cartoons, and suggesting liberals supported miscegenation to “atone for white guilt.” Raw Sex deplores the “perverted filth” and “massive stench which arises from the SIECUS SEXPOT” while warning that “our children will become easy targets for Marxism and other amoral, nihilistic philosophies – as well as V.D.!”
Hargis commissioned an even more berserk film entitled Pavlov’s Children, produced by Gordon Drake’s brother William Drake. Pavlov’s Children indulged in the ugliest Far Right talking points: the filmmakers claimed that SIECUS worked for the United Nations, and that they sought to reduce Americans to the “heathen” sexual standards of “primitive” Africans. “By reducing morality of all the standards of the most immoral,” a sonorous narrator warns, “people will no longer unite behind a shared outlook and religious, ethnic or racial groups.” Instead, children will be “ready for homogenization into the faceless masses of an atheistic world tyranny.”
Promoted heavily by Hargis’s radio program, Raw Sex sold a million copies, often accompanied by screenings of Pavlov’s Children, and triggered a nationwide backlash against SIECUS. One Anaheim activist demanded that “to protect the children, all people with any affiliation” to SIECUS should “be investigated concerning their private and public lives and be given tests by a psychiatrist to see if they are considered sexually normal.” The superintendent’s reassurance that “film strips showing human or animals engaged in sexual intercourse” weren’t part of the curriculum did little to relieve the community’s tensions; battles raged in classrooms, schoolboard meetings and print and television editorials.
But the backlash wasn’t limited to Orange County conservatives. In Chicago, a Jewish housewife named Pat Westerfield organized a group called CHIDE (Committee to Halt Indoctrination and Demoralization of Education) which challenged local schools’ curricula. Westerfield disowned Hargis and the John Birch Society, although her denunciations were qualified by a fear that “Negroes” would destroy her neighborhood. Westerfield generally couched her objections in personal experience. She learned about sex in the library, she boasted, “and I didn’t get knocked up, and I didn’t go around screwin’ everybody.”
Journalist Mary Breasted attended a convention hosted by Westerfield at the Chicago Hilton in August 1969. She was impressed by Westerfield’s homespun industry, offering “handsome loose-leaf notebooks for every delegate, notebooks full of shocking quotes from behavioral scientists and sex educators and newspaper reprints about sex education classes…random sets of atrocity stories and helpful texts of letters to the editor and the Attorney General.” Attendees paid $27.50 for these notebooks, along with a free lunch and speeches by “experts” like a Michigan housewife who blamed murders in her hometown on magazines discussing sadomasochism, or a Chicago woman who veered off-script to rail against “Communists” like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez.
Activism wasn’t always limited to letters and pamphlets. School administrators from Anaheim to Ohio received death threats from outraged parents. Absurd rumors spread about art classes teaching kids to model genitals in clay, instructors who guided students in fondling each other and even a teacher gang-raped in the classroom by her aroused students. MOTOREDE spread dire warnings that women and men might be forced to share restrooms. Hundreds of school districts across America rescinded their programs; Louisiana outlawed sex education altogether.
Calderone, unsurprisingly, found herself the locus of personal attacks. Opponents branded her “the High Priestess of Orgasm,” “a sexual Typhoid Mary,” “Prostitute of Hell” and “the head Madam of SIECUS”; one evangelist suggested renaming a venereal disease as “Calderone Herpes.” Most vituperative of all was a Michigan parent who instructed “all you queers, pinkos and pimps [to] crawl under some damp rock and have your own sex orgy until you die from exhaustion.” Such vitriol inspired one school nurse affiliated with SIECUS to complain that “people have the dirtiest minds.”
Meanwhile, Hargis revived his ally McCarthy’s guilt by association tactics, smearing SIECUS and its leader as “communist” despite Calderone being a registered Republican. Hargis reminded listeners that Calderone was the niece of Carl Sandburg, who’d been a socialist in his youth and remained a lifelong progressive activist. Another SIECUS executive, Isadore Rubin, had been subpoenaed by Joe McCarthy himself and refused to answer whether he’d been a communist. The attacks made their way to Congress, where Orange County’s James Utt denounced SIECUS as part of a conspiracy between communists, the Beatles and the American Legion (!) “to produce artificial neuroses in our young people.”
Calderone responded with indignant hauteur. She labeled the rumors about classroom copulation “blatant insults to the integrity and intelligence of the teachers in our nation’s schools” and mocked critics who “express the sincere Christian wish…that I’ll roundly roast in hell.” In 1974 she penned an open letter to the New York Times, which had recently published a vitriolic anti-SIECUS screed by one E. Rouault, which she denounced as “a sad but clear demonstration of what happens when willful ignorance speaks.” She acidly suggested Ms. Rouault familiarize herself with literature in the field: “If she can understand even half of it,” Calderone wrote, “I am willing to guarantee that never again will she be tempted to sound off in areas with which she is unfamiliar.”
Calderone did receive some support in the media. One newspaper denounced Congressman Utt’s berserk speech, asserting that “virtually none of [his] charges and statements was supported by evidence.” Playboy ran sympathetic profiles of Calderone, along with a long-form interview in 1970 allowing her to defend herself (but then, Playboy would defend the “SIECUS Sexpot”). Certainly her fellow educators agreed: a Wisconsin teacher compared critics’ rage to saying that “there’s an epidemic of polio, but we’re not going to let you do anything about it.” But the charges against SIECUS scarcely needed evidence: with so many rumors in the air, worried parents and social conservatives were bound to believe some of them.
Along with misogyny and vituperation went the familiar cry: shouldn’t parents have a say in their child’s education? “I am perfectly willing to let the experts teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic,” one woman wrote SIECUS organizer Frederick Margolis. “When it comes to matters which will affect their moral character, I will handle the job.” Tension between public education and private morality is not one easily bridged, then or now.
Such complaints, however, ignored the obvious: that sex education existed not as a Liberal Plot to mold children in an amoral image, but because parents failed to educate their own children in the first place. Or else reinforced regressive stereotypes, claiming that masturbation was a soul-destroying evil, that boys were entitled to sow their oats (but not to learn how) while only “bad girls” had sex. Certainly voices like Hargis, Welch and Drake, who campaigned vigorously to reintroduce prayer in schools, raged not against too much moral instruction in the classroom, but the wrong kind.
Undoubtedly, Calderone’s reputation suffered from these vituperative assaults. It didn’t help that more progressive voices criticized her for not embracing feminism more wholeheartedly, or accused her of a “confused and hypocritical” attitude by espousing monogamous relationships. Even so, Calderone continued speaking on sex education and the need for a healthy discourse on intimacy; by the time of her death in 1998, she had long since placed her stamp on American education. Her traducers largely faded to irrelevance – Billy James Hargis’ career, unsurprisingly, unraveled due to a sex scandal – though their arguments were parroted by later generations of moral crusaders.
Today, SIECUS, Planned Parenthood and public schools continue to serve as lightning rods for social conservatives. Certainly the prevalence of abstinence-only curricula in more conservative districts shows that the crusade against sex ed hasn’t ended. And it’s still easy to cause outrage by attacking public education as a cesspool where “teacher competency is measured by how capable a teacher is at taking away a fourth-grader’s bible and passing out condoms,” as one particularly crass pundit claims. It’s hardly reassuring that modern schools are besieged by criticisms begun fifty years ago; but perhaps some solace can be had in that those voices, too, largely failed in the end.
Sources and Further Reading
The Mary Calderone/SIECUS controversy is detailed in, among other works, Mary Breasted, Oh! Sex Education! (1971); Heather Hendershot, What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest (2011); Janice M. Irvine, Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States (2002); Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001) and Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (2002).