women's history month

10 Women in History Who Changed the Way We Think About Sex

Created on 08/03/2022
Updated on 13/10/2022
It’s March, which means we’ll be celebrating all kinds of accomplishments by female politicians, activists, scientists, writers, and artists. And sexual revolutionaries! In honor of Women’s History Month—and of International Women’s Day—here are 10 women across the world who have changed the way we think about sex, gender, and pleasure.
emma goldman Emma Goldman. Credit: Library of Congress

Emma Goldman (1869 - 1940)

Goldman was an anarcha-feminist who, among other things, advocated for Free Love and birth control education. She was a fierce critic of marriage, which she said made women “absolute dependents.” But she believed deeply in the power of love, “the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny.”

Virginia Johnson (1925 - 2013)

Johnson was a pioneering sex researcher who, along with William Masters, identified the four stages of sexual response and made huge strides in understanding sexual dysfunction at a time when very few people were talking honestly about sex. Originally Masters’ research assistant in 1957, she eventually became his equal partner in publishing decades of data—dispelling many myths about sex and arousal.

Sylvia Rivera (1951 - 2002)

Rivera was a gay liberation and trans rights activist, decades before trans people were visible on the national stage. Rivera, who identified as a drag queen, joined the Gay Activists Alliance at 18, co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and fought for the legacy of queer activism til the end of her life.
audre lorde Audre Lorde, 1980. Credit: K. Kendall/Wikimedia Commons

Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992)

Lorde was a black lesbian feminist writer who theorized about how women can become empowered when they release their sexual energy rather than suppress it. In her 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she wrote, “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”

Betty Dodson (1929- 2020)

Dodson is a sex educator and early pro-sex feminist. She’s known for not only trumpeting the pleasures of masturbation (most famously in her bestselling book, Sex For One), but for holding enlighting masturbation workshops in her home.

Minori Kitahara (1970 - )

In 1996, Tokyo-based writer Kitahara founded Love Piece Club, the first inclusive female-owned sex toy shop in Japan. Since then she’s been outspoken about sexual health and women’s right to pleasure, even though the subject is still pretty taboo in her country.

Nancy Friday (1933 - 2017)

Friday was a writer who, through her hundreds of interviews with women (and men), advocated for openness about sexual desire and fantasies. Her 1973 classic, My Secret Garden, busted many assumptions and myths about female sexuality (including the fact that it was safe and passive). She wrote similar books based on interviews about topics like jealousy, feminism, BDSM, and even men’s fantasies.
mona eltahawy Mona Eltahawy. Credit: personaldemocracy on Flickr

Mona Eltahawy (1967 - )

Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American author and journalist whose 2015 book, Headscarves and Hymens, calls for a sexual revolution in the Middle East. Religions, she told the Guardian, are “obsessed with my vagina. I tell them: stay outside my vagina unless I want you in there.”

Gloria Alzaldua (1942 - 2004)

Anzaldua was a queer Chicana intersectional feminist who wrote extensively about her sexuality and queer identity. She broke taboos by discussing her attraction to women, men, her own father, animals, and nature (though she identified specifically as a lesbian). “I will have my serpent's tongue—my woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice,” she wrote in 1987. “I will overcome the tradition of silence.”

Beverly Whipple (1934 - )

Whipple is a sexologist who, along with co-author John Perry, popularized the G-spot in 1982 in their book, The G Spot and Other Discoveries about Human Sexuality. She’s also one of the earliest researchers to explore female ejaculation—a contentious topic to this day.

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