The Doctor I Didn’t Expect

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook on Lonny Myers and twentieth-century abortion law.

The Doctor I Didn’t Expect: Lonny Myers’ Mid-Twentieth Century U.S. Sex Radicalism

While at the Schlesinger Library recently, working in the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) records, I came across an unfamiliar name. In the program for the First National Conference on Abortion Laws: Modification or Repeal? (Chicago, Illinois, 14-16 February 1969) the local contact for the working group that would become NARAL was Lonny Myers, M.D.

Great, I thought. Another male doctor. During the 1950s-60s, the abortion reform movement was dominated by male medical professionals. The two other individuals centrally involved in NARAL’s organization — author Lawrence Lader of New York and ecologist Garrett Hardin of California — were both men. Lonny Myers, M.D. seemed to fit this pattern — until I started digging deeper.

Caroline (Lonny) Rulon Myers was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1922 to wealthy parents who sent their daughter to Vassar College, where she graduated in 1944 with a degree in biology.[1] In 1948 she graduated from the University of Michigan with an M.D. and went on to practice anesthesiology in Chicago while her husband, Shu Yu Wang, completed his medical training. During Myer’s residency at Michael Reese hospital, the couple had five children. In the late 1950s, Myers became involved in political organizing around family planning, beginning with efforts to extend birth control services to women receiving public assistance in Illinois. Soon, she was considering a move out of anesthesiology into family planning.

After hearing a talk by Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968), Myers became committed to the cause of limiting human reproduction before human consumption became unsustainable for the planet’s limited resources. Like many of her contemporaries, Myer’s family planning activism turned around ecological concerns. Unlike many of the abortion rights proponents of her era, Myer’s was committed to discussing not only “population” and “family planning,” but also sex. “I decided I really wanted to do something in population” rather than anesthetics, she told Ellen Chesler in a 1976 oral history interview, “and have this whole idea that the attitude toward sex has to do with population…that until you’re willing to deal with sex you can’t deal with population.”[2] A year after 1969 First National Conference, Myers helped found the Midwest Population Center where, among other activities, she provided free vasectomies. She became an active researcher in human sexuality, publishing books, articles, and speaking widely on matters from abortion to zero population growth.[3] As she and her husband grew apart they separated amicably (remaining married) and Myers became an advocate of open marriage.[4]

While the Lonny Myers papers, housed at the University of Illinois, are open for research it appears that very little work has been done on Myers’ life and work in historical context.[5] Searches for Myers in various bibliographic databases turn up work by, but very little about, this quietly radical figure. This is a shame because Lonny Myers’ young adulthood and early professional life span a crucial period in American women’s history — post-suffrage (1919) yet before the women’s liberation movement of the Sixties.

Born after feminist activists had expanded educational, economic, and political opportunities for women, Myers was of a generation of privileged, white American women generally expected to attend college before marriage.[6] As college students, these women had pioneering female professionals to look up to — Myers describes, for example, spending one summer during college in Kentucky volunteering with Mary Carson Breckinridge’s Frontier Nursing Service.[7] While baby boomer women often take center stage in our accounts of the women’s liberation movement, their mothers, aunts, and professors were often fellow travelers — though their radicalism did not be the focus of national attention the way boomer rebellion would.

The expansion of college education, along with increasing opportunities for women’s financial independence during the post-suffrage era, created spaces for some to explore and perform gender and sexuality in non-conventional ways.[8] Myer describes being playfully sexually active with Wang, the man she eventually married, as well as fellow interns during her medical training. She also articulates impatience with heteronormative romance conventions (“I don’t like [sex] to depend on pretending”[9]) and claims, at one point, “The first time I really felt I understood the word female was not until I was thirty-nine years old.”[10] Her nieces and nephews referred to her as “Uncle Lonny.”[11] Still, there were limits — and Myers was aware of them. Looking back on her decision to become a doctor, she observed that one motivation was “once I get an M.D. (since I can’t be a man and have people listen to me because I’m male) people will listen to me.”[12]

Myer’s professional work is equally notable when examined through a historical lens. Her insistence that human sexuality could not separated from the political question of population and natural resources, foreshadows later feminist framing. During the same period that Virginia Masters and William Johnson were conducting their research with human subjects, and as The Joy of Sex was hitting the market on both sides of the Atlantic, Myers was also challenging Americans to think about human sexuality in expansive ways; she explored topics such as childhood sexuality, disability and sexuality, and female ejaculation that even today receive too little attention.

Lonny Myers retired in 1989 and spent two years with the Peace Corps in Malawi.[13] Upon returning to the U.S. Myers moved to Colorado, where as far as my research indicates she still lives at the age of 92.

 

aclutterbuck-cook_mugshotBIO Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook is a reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society and historian whose current research explores the U.S. Christian left’s response to human sexual diversity during the mid-twentieth century. You can find her online at thefeministlibrarian.com. She and her wife live in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts (USA) with two cats and over one thousand books.

____________________________

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biographical details in this paragraph and the following are drawn from Lonny Myers, M.D. oral history interview, September 1976, Family Planning Oral History Project, OH-1; T-25; M-138; A1-3, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (Hereafter referred to as Myers, September 1976).

[2] Myers, September 1976, 29.

[3] Collection guide to the Lonny Myers Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago.

[4] Myers, September 1976, 53-59. See also Lonny Myers and Hunter Leggitt, Adultery and Other Private Matters (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975).

[5] Lonny Myers Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago.

[6] Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

[7] Myers, September 1976, 11.

[8] See, for example, Margot Canaday’s The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) or Daniel K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). As these titles suggest, exploration had its limits and was often punished harshly when perceived as threatening to the state or social order.

[9] Myers, September 1976, 5.

[10] Myers, September 1976, 14.

[11] Myers, September 1976, 4.

[12] Myers, September 1976, 11.

[13] Collection guide to the Lonny Myers Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago.

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