Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone brought an uncomfortable subject to the forefront of public debate in her work in sex education. Beginning in the 1950s, when public discussion of such issues was considered highly controversial, Dr. Calderone flouted convention by speaking out in the first place, and as a woman broaching such a topic. In 1964 she founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), to promote sex education for children and young adults.
Mary Steichen was born in Paris to American parents. Her mother was a singer,and her father, Edward Steichen, was a noted photographer. He returned to America annually to exhibit and sell his photographs, and in 1914 the family moved back to the U.S. when World War I began. In 1915 Mary Steichen was sent to New York to live with family friends, Dr. and Mrs. Leopold Stieglitz, while she attended the Brearley School. She became interested in medicine when Dr. Stieglitz let her join him on his rounds and discussed his cases with her.
Mary Steichen enrolled in pre-med courses at Vassar in 1921, but rather than go on to medical school, she spent her final year studying music, acting, and English. She decided on a stage career, and did not return to medicine until she was thirty years old after marrying, having two children, divorcing, and working in a department store to make ends meet. When friends and family encouraged her to return to medicine, she enrolled at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1935.
After graduation, Dr. Calderone completed a year's internship at Bellevue Hospital, but was reluctant to pursue the medical residencies necessary to launch her career. She had been separated from her only surviving daughter for her last two years at medical school and during her internship, so instead she applied for fellowships to study public health. She credits Leona Baumgartner, M.D., of the New York City Health Department, as one of two women who made it possible for her to follow her new path into public health.
Dr. Calderone received her M.P.H. from Columbia University School of Public Health in 1942, and married that year. After having two more children, she took a part-time job as a school physician. She later remembered this time as a very difficult period for her, when people often forgot that she, like her husband, was also a qualified physician.
Dr. Calderone's career took center stage in 1953, after her husband's retirement, when she became medical director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She made the job her own, embracing new ideas on human sexuality and leading the movement to separate sex from reproduction. Planned Parenthood worked to satisfy public demands for advice on contraception and sexual health, and Calderone promoted sex as a healthy, normal part of life, worthy of public discussion.
In 1964, Dr. Calderone left Planned Parenthood to set up the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), where she served as executive director until 1975, when she became president. Though sometimes vilified by the conservative press, she received many professional awards for her work, including the 1968 Woman of Conscience award from the National Council of Women, and the Elizabeth Blackwell Award for Distinguished Service to Humanity by Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1977. In 1971, Ladies Home Journal named her one of "America's 75 Most Important Women," and in 1975 she was listed among the Newspaper Enterprises Association's "50 Most Influential Women in the U.S."
Her efforts to equip young people with the confidence and knowledge to enjoy safe and healthy sex lives in adulthood were truly revolutionary. The debate she began in the 1950s has paved the way for discussions so vital today about sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.