Calderone, Mary Steichen (1904–1998)

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Calderone, Mary Steichen (1904–1998)

American pioneer in the development of responsible sex education for children and adults. Name variations: Mary Steichen; Mary Steichen Martin. Pronunciation: STAI-ken. Born Mary Steichen in New York City, on July 1, 1904; died on October 24, 1998, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; daughter of Edward Steichen (the photographer) and Clara (Smith) Steichen (a homemaker); graduated Vassar College, B.A., 1925; University of Rochester Medical School, M.D., 1939; Columbia University, Master's Degree of Public Health, 1941; married W. Lon Martin, in 1926 (divorced 1933); married Frank Calderone, on November 27, 1941; children: (first marriage) Nell (d. 1935) and Linda; (second marriage) Francesca and Maria.

Became medical director of Planned Parenthood (1953); named first executive director of SIECUS (1965); became president of SIECUS (1975); retired from active involvement in SIECUS (1982); received numerous honorary degrees and dozens of awards and citations for her work in the field of public health including: the distinguished service award of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County (1958); the fourth annual award for distinguished service to humanity of the women's auxiliary of the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia (1966); the Woman of Conscience Award of the National Council of Women (1968); the Woman of Achievement Award of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University (1969); the annual award from the Education Foundation for Human Sexuality (1973); and the Edward Browning Award for Prevention of Disease from the American Public Health Association (1980).

Publications: (with father Edward Steichen under name Mary Steichen Martin) The First Picture Book: Everyday Things for Babies (1930) and The Second Picture Book (1931); (editor, under Mary Steichen Calderone) Abortion in the United States (1958) and Release From Sexual Tensions (1960); (editor) Manual of Family Planning and Contraceptive Practice (1964); (editor) Sexuality and Human Values (1974); (with Eric Johnson) The Family Book About Sexuality (1981); (with James W. Ramey) Talking With Your Child About Sex (1982).

Mary Steichen Calderone was one of the pioneers of sexual education and reform in 20th-century America. During a time when important new discoveries about the nature of human sexuality were precluded from open public discussion because of rigid social and religious mores, she became a vociferous, tireless crusader. It was her firm belief that if ordinary people had access to information relating to human sexuality they would make responsible and rational decisions about sex. Calderone is credited with taking information on procreation and sexuality out of the exclusive domain of professional circles and putting it into homes and public schools across America.

Born in New York City on July 1, 1904, Mary Steichen Calderone was the elder of two daughters of Clara Smith Steichen and renowned photographer Edward Steichen. Mary spent her first ten years in France where artistic luminaries such as August Rodin and Isadora Duncan were frequent guests in the Steichen home. Calderone was always close to her father and considered him one of the greatest influences on her life. She credited his "extension of photography into the area of human life and the human condition" as informing her own eventual decision to work in the area of public health.

Edward Steichen exercised little overt control over his daughters, instead insisting that the girls be given the freedom to make their own decisions. The result was that Calderone developed into a strong, independent thinker. Her father later recalled that Mary "always had a strong personality, almost as strong as my own." Her mother did not share his enthusiasm. She found it increasingly difficult to manage her high-spirited daughter, and their relationship was fraught with difficulties.

The outbreak of World War I forced the family to return to the United States. By this time, her parents had divorced, and her father's service in the army left her without an ally at home. After passing one unhappy year at a country school in Connecticut, Calderone was sent to New York to live with Dr. Leopold Stieglitz, brother of Alfred Stieglitz, another pioneer of early photography and an associate of her father. "This is where my academic intellectual life and my interest in medicine began, for Dr. Stieglitz loved to talk over his cases with me, and often I went on his rounds with him," Calderone later recalled.

While living with Leopold Stieglitz and his family, she attended the exclusive Brearley School. After graduating in 1922, she went to Vassar College where she majored in chemistry and began acting in college plays. She was graduated in 1925 and returned to New York eager to pursue a stage career. For three years, she studied under Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya of the American Laboratory Theater. It was during this interval that she was married for the first time to an actor, W. Lon Martin. The couple had two daughters before divorcing in 1933.

Calderone also decided to give up acting. She later described her decision to leave the theater in a characteristically straightforward way: "I gave up acting when I found I wasn't good enough. … I was ambitious and if I couldn't be as good as Katharine Cornell—that is, tops—I decided I wouldn't go on with it." The dual failure of marriage and career was followed by the death of her eight-year-old daughter Nell from pneumonia in 1935. These losses sent Calderone into a period of sadness and confusion for which she underwent psychoanalysis.

Emerging from this bleak period with a new direction and a renewed determination, she decided on a medical career in the field of public health, and, in 1934, at age 30, entered the University of Rochester Medical School. Calderone received her M.D. in 1939 and interned for one year at the Children's Hospital in New York City. Awarded a two-year fellowship by the Department of Health of New York City, she took graduate courses at the Columbia University School of Public Health and received a Master's Degree in Public Health in 1942. While at Columbia, she worked for Dr. Frank A. Calderone, a district health officer on New York's Lower East Side (he later became deputy commissioner of health for New York City). They wed on November 27, 1941, and the marriage produced two daughters.

For the next few years, Mary Calderone stayed home to raise her young daughters, working only part time as a physician to the public schools in Great Neck, New York. Then in 1953, she became medical director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a position she held until 1964. It was in this capacity that Calderone first became aware of the critical need for sex education and family planning.

As medical director, she lectured widely to professional groups, urging them to recognize family planning as a basic public-health issue. She is credited with influencing the American Medical Association to adopt a policy in 1964 that permitted physicians to dispense birth-control information more freely. Yet Calderone began to wonder whether advising the medical community and handing out contraception to the public was enough. She was astonished by the thousands of letters that Planned Parenthood received from around the country asking basic questions about birth control, sex, and sexual problems. The letters reflected feelings of guilt, fear, and misunderstanding. Calderone became convinced that a pandemic of ignorance about sexuality existed and that the people she most needed to reach were ordinary men and women. She decided to wield her considerable influence to educate people and challenge the prevailing social taboos and religious doctrines responsible for keeping the discussion of sexuality out of the public sphere.

In 1961, Calderone took part in the first North American Conference on Church and Family, sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The convention was attended by sociologists, religious leaders, family-life educators, and public-health officials. Calderone and five colleagues who took part in the conference established an informal committee to examine studies on human sexuality. Out of this committee was formed the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, Inc. (SIECUS) in 1964. The stated purpose of the organization was to dignify human sexuality "by openness of approach, study, and scientific research … to the end that human beings may be aided toward responsible use of the sexual facility and towards assimilation of sex into their individual life patterns as a creative and re-creative force."

My motivation … is simple: to give ordinary people access to the facts scientists now have about the different aspects of sexuality common to all people everywhere. … Such knowledge, when understood, accepted and applied … can act to avoid or prevent many of the sexual dysfunctions easily observable in our society and elsewhere.

—Mary Steichen Calderone

Calderone resigned her position at Planned Parenthood and became executive director of SIECUS in 1965. Under her stewardship, SIECUS became a clearinghouse on sexuality, providing individuals and organizations with information on reproduction, premarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, frigidity, and impotence. It provided training in sex education to doctors, ministers, and psychiatrists. As executive director, Calderone lectured widely to educators, parents, students, religious leaders, and professional groups, advocating a continuum of sex education in the public schools, beginning in kindergarten with the basic facts about procreation and masturbation. She argued that this instruction should continue as necessary throughout elementary school. At the high school level, she stressed the importance of integrating scientific information on reproduction and sexuality with social concerns about human relationships and responsibilities. She suggested that the curriculum should include discussions of sexual and mating behavior, psychological factors involved in the human sexual response, the relationship between family and society, and the institution of marriage. Frank discussion of venereal disease, divorce, and abortion were also to be included.

Though Calderone's specific ideas for sex education were not always implemented, her pioneering efforts paid off. In 1964, the year of SIECUS' inception, only 1% of the medical schools in the United States included sex education; ten years later, 95% included it (though the number eventually declined). The proliferation of sex-education courses in grade schools and high schools across America also testifies to the enormous impact of her work.

Throughout her career in the field of human sexuality, Calderone was a controversial figure. Her efforts to speak out about homosexual rights, abortion, sex for the handicapped and elderly, pornography (which she did not denounce), and sex education for children continually came under fire. She was accused of being subversive and immoral and was labeled an "aging sexual libertine" by the John Birch Society, while SIECUS was accused of being a Communist plot to overthrow the government. Her critics charged that educating children about sex at an early age encouraged experimentation and led to sexual dysfunction. Calderone scoffed at these charges, and instead insisted that it was the withholding of information that led to misunderstanding and warped attitudes. She wrote in Clinical Pediatrics in March 1966:

Sexuality … as an attribute of life that lends the variety and color and excitement and creativity that adults know, is never presented to young people because we are so afraid that, if we do so we may stimulate them and lead them astray. My answer to that is that plenty of erotic stimuli reach them so continually in so many other ways that it is like the man living on a garbage dump who worries that the teaspoon of honey he has spilled may attract flies.

In spite of the resistance she received from many conservative and religious groups, Calderone maintained that her own faith informed her progressive attitude toward sexuality. As a devout Quaker, she believed "sexuality is a part of God because … it is part of being human." She disagreed with those who tried to keep it tied under the yoke of fear and sin. She called, instead, for teaching children that sexuality constitutes the deepest form of communication, and that, as in other human relations, one should enter into a sexual relationship with a sense of responsibility of the rights and well being of the other person. She also roundly criticized those who trivialized sex, engaging in it indiscriminately and thus equating "sexuality with genitality."

As she moved into old age, Calderone stayed active in public health and debate. She remained the executive director of SIECUS until 1975, when she was named president, the position she held until her retirement in 1982, at age 78. She subsequently held several academic appointments, including a lectureship in sexuality at New York University (1982–88). The Family Book About Sexuality, which she co-wrote with Eric Johnson, was published in 1981. The New York Times called it "a comprehensive family guide to sexuality, full of surprises, rich in facts and … stripped of propaganda." The book was named "Best Trade Book" by the American Medical Writers Association. The following year saw the publication of Talking With Your Child About Sex, which she co-wrote with James W. Ramey.


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Suzanne Smith , freelance writer, Decatur, Georgia

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Calderone, Mary Steichen (1904–1998)

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Calderone, Mary Steichen (1904–1998)