'Our Bodies, Ourselves' and 15 Other Milestones in Women's Sexual Liberation

15 milestones in the fight for women’s sexual liberation.

Bettmann-Corbis (birth control); Corbis (vibrator); Mel Evans / AP Photos (g-spot book)

Bettmann-Corbis (birth control); Corbis (vibrator); Mel Evans / AP Photos (g-spot book)

When Our Bodies, Ourselves first hit bookstands in 1973, many women (and men) didn't quite know what to make of it: with chapters on sex, birth control, masturbation—and even a diagram of the clitoris—it was the first time women had talked about sex so candidly. And yet for many, the experience was almost holy. "Mind-blowing," describes Andi Zeisler, the editorial director at Bitch Magazine, of the time she first read the book, at the home of a friend in the 1980s. Life-changing, says Shira Tarrant, a Los Angeles author. And yet, the seminal text—which would go on to sell four million copies—was just one of many peaks in the decades-long battle for women's sexual liberation. On the book's 40th anniversary, a look at the milestones that came before and after.

Read the Story: Our Bodies, Ourselves at 40

John Springer Collection-Corbis (film still)

First Female Orgasm on Film

“Highly—even dangerously—indecent,” read a memo to Will Hays, the head of Hollywood censorship, regarding this 1933 Czech film, Ecstasy. Featuring a highly controversial nude swimming scene, Ecstasy is believed to be the first non-pornographic movie to depict an on-screen female orgasm (though it only showed her face). It was banned from many U.S. theaters.


Margaret Sanger

In an era when women could not vote, have bank accounts, or divorce their husbands, Margaret Sanger (at right), a New York nurse, opened the first birth-control clinic in the nation (pictured here). Sanger would go on to found the American Birth Control League in 1921—which would go on to become Planned Parenthood—lobbying frequently to provide women with information about contraception.

Wikipedia (left); Mel Evans / AP Photos

G Spot

The strange title of “Father of the G-spot” goes to Dr. Ernst Grafenberg (left), a German gynecologist who first identified the so-called erotogenic zone in the 1940s (it was first called the Grafenberg-spot). The term G-spot did not enter the popular lexicon until the 1980s, when Rutgers University researcher Beverly Whipple (at right) published the bestseller, The G-Spot and Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality. It would be translated into 19 languages.



Dr. Alfred Kinsey was a well-known biologist in the early half of the 20th century, but not for his extensive study of wasps. Beginning in the 1930s, Kinsey began the first scientific studies into human sexuality, surveying 18,000 people in over two decades of work. His in-depth questionnaires, released as The Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953, pried into previously untouched areas such as homosexuality and the use of prostitutes. In his second book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female—pictured on the front of a local newspaper here—argued, among other things, that women who'd had premarital sex were more likely to have happy marriages.


Masters and Johnson

In the 1950s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson recruited hundreds of Americans to perform sexual acts in a lab setting so researchers could better understand sexual responses. For over 30 years, Masters, a gynecology professor at Washington University, and his lab assistant-turned-wife Johnson, worked closely with hundreds of volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 89, to expand the limited information on human sexuality. As a pair, they expanded the realm of what was then considered “normal” behavior—allowing women to experiment more freely with their sexual boundaries.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection-Corbis

The Bikini

Before bikini-clad models graced the covers of Playboy and Sports Illustrated, the bikini was the most controversial clothing item of the century. In 1946, two rival French designers were racing to create the world’s smallest swimsuit. In their self-made contest, Louis Reard named his design after the Bikini Atoll, after a group of Pacific islands where the Americans had just tested the A-bomb. His new belly button-baring bathing suit (shown here in a 1950s photo of Marilyn Monroe) was considered so scandalous that Reard had to hire a stripper to be its first model. Though it came out years before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the bikini was a step into the baring-it-all freedoms the women’s liberation movement would soon offer.

Hulton Archive-Getty Images

The Pill

The first formulations of birth-control pills, called Enovid, were submitted to the FDA for approval in 1957 as treatment for menstrual disorders or infertility. But it wasn't until three years later, in 1960, that the manufacturer presented the same oral contraceptive to the FDA to prevent pregnancy. By 1964, the pill had become the most popular form of birth control in the United States.


Though it was billed a “first-class family magazine” when it launched in 1886, the made-over Cosmopolitan of the 1960s—edited by Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown—took a straight-forward look at sex and women's health, including one of the first pieces about the Pill. Cosmo (pictured here in 1980) remains the highest-circulating women’s publication in the United States.

'Our Bodies, Ourselves'

First released as a 138-page pamphlet in 1971, Our Bodies, Ourselves would ultimately go mainstream—published by Simon & Schuster, and selling over four million copies. The text—which delved into everything from sex to birth control to child-bearing and orgasm—was the first health manual to be written by women for women. It celebrates its 40th anniversary with a new edition this year.

Greg Gibson / AFP-Getty Images

Roe v. Wade

The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion made it safer and easier for women to terminate a pregnancy. Jane Roe was the pseudonym given to Norma McCorvey (holding sign), a 22-year-old single mother entering her third pregnancy. The court decision ruling in her favor overturned state laws banning abortion and was a huge victory for advocates of women’s choice.

Popperfoto-Getty Images

The Sex Shop

This London sex shop, called Ann Summers, was one of the first targeted at women in the U.K. But it would be four more years before the U.S. would catch on—with Eve's Garden, founded in 1974 by women's rights activist Dell Williams. Twenty years later, Toys in Babeland (now called Babeland) would become the largest sex-toy retailer for women.


'The Hite Report'

A Columbia University social history student at the time, Shere Hite spent five years asking 3,000 women to describe their sexual habits—everything from what an orgasm really feels like to what their greatest sexual frustrations were. In 1976, she published an epic, 600-page book with her findings, The Hite Report, in which she famously revealed that 70 percent of women couldn’t orgasm through intercourse alone, but almost all could orgasm during masturbation.

Courtesy Everett Collection

'Coming Home'

One might not expect to find the first onscreen female orgasm from oral sex in a film about the Vietnam War. But there it was, starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, in the 1978 film Coming Home. The landmark scene—amid a love-triangle plotline with Fonda at the center—was fitting for the politically active Fonda, who has long been a proponent of women’s sexual rights

Samuel Goldwyn Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

First Lesbian Love Scene

Paving the way for The L Word and other mainstream depictions of lesbian relationships was Desert Hearts, a film about two women falling in love in the 1950s. After decades of subtle homosexual relationships in films, scripts in the 1970s and 1980s had stopped tiptoeing around—and this 1985 film marked the first time lesbian love scenes were shown on camera. The low-budget film made waves, bringing lesbian relationships into mainstream Hollywood and winning the Special Jury Prize for drama at Sundance.



If one person was credited with transforming pop culture into the sexualized force it is today, it would be Madonna. The young pop star’s “Like a Virgin” performance during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour depicted her simulating masturbation while writhing on a red satin bed in a conical corset in front of thousands of fans. Madonna, always bold, has continued to inspire confidence and sexual freedom by keeping her own sexuality in the limelight.


'Sex and the City'

In 2008, Newsweek ran a story about over-the-counter sex lubricants and vibrators that were taking suburban retailers by storm. What prompted the sudden demand, at stores like Target and Walmart? One thing, retailers said: Sex and the City. The show, which ran for six glorious seasons on HBO—and still appears on TBS—was flowing like an aphrodisiac into small-town living rooms across the country. No network before had put sex in the forefront of a plot, much less in the title of the show itself. Here, Carrie and Miranda talk shop in the now-famous "Rabbit" episode.

Related: Our Bodies, Ourselves Grows Up