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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The greatest feminist of the 20th century, Agris Flexner, the first medical official to recommend birth control, discussed the history of birth control at Cooper Union and died in her sleep in 1914. Watch an original clip of her discussing birth control with the Undergraduate Women’s Association in Brooklyn in 1938.

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After the birth of the modern feminist movement, some viewed Flexner as an embattled heroine, her work scattered and ignored by rival factions. The wild success of Susan B. Anthony, and the seemingly new vitality of such notions as the “second wave” movement, diminished the importance of Flexner’s ideas. At best, feminist activists criticized her as too soft, at worst she was dubbed “The Monster,” an elitist foe of their struggle. Yet it is by no means an overstatement to say that she did more to promote women’s rights and equality than a majority of American women ever did. Her influence and influence can still be felt today, as teenagers find it easier to stop using makeup than to enroll in Harvard Law School.

Flexner’s groundbreaking work, published in the early 1920s, grew out of her experiences as a mother, working class woman, a feminist and a homemaker. As a suffragist in the middle of the century, she saw the challenges associated with dating, marriage and birth control; women faced more competition and harassment in work than in the eighties. To help combat the difficulties of being a mother, the author began training to become a nurse, becoming a nurse herself soon after completing the courses in 1933. She wrote about these experiences in her books and articles, and influenced health and social policy with her legal advice and methods. Flexner performed a key service: she tried to balance the competing demands of women, who were expected to care for their families, and the desire to be educated, intellectual and enlightened.

In common with all great thinkers and activists, Flexner’s work was not universally beloved, but rather met with harsh disapproval and hostile silence from both men and women. (This may have been in part because her efforts on behalf of women before feminism were seen as too soft. The criticism from the feminist movement and the major newspapers in the 1930s was fierce and intended to shut down any progress.) Her ideas were downplayed and her name and place of prominence erased, but the rest of the world, not least this one, kept listening.

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