While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the fifth in a series (read the first, second, third, and fourth) launching our sixth year with gratitude, and the last unless you nominate, in the comments below, a woman you’d like us to highlight!
Virginia Eshelman grew up as a Missouri farm girl. She sang country music for a radio station in her home town of Springfield. During World War II, she sang with a band, and later she married George Johnson, a bandleader. In 1956 they divorced, leaving her with two small children to bring up alone. She needed a job, so she went to the placement office at the university in St. Louis where she was studying sociology. The office sent her to William H. Masters, who was looking for a female assistant.
Masters, of the university’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, had undertaken secret research into sex. He was using prostitutes as research subjects, but he wanted to recruit a more typical population. Gini Johnson had no college degree, but she had a warm manner and an easy smile. She also turned out to have a formidable intelligence and bottomless determination. She went on to become a world-renowned authority on The Human Sexual Response, as their groundbreaking 1966 book was called.
She noted that neighbors, after their first book was published, “had a kind of Midwest mode of handling us.” They pretended nothing had happened.
Masters and Johnson studied hundreds of volunteers, men and women from the ages of 18 to 89, who were willing to have sex or masturbate in a laboratory setting, wired up and filmed. They measured heart rate, blood pressure, breath, brain activity, and metabolism. They even gave women a Plexiglas phallus with a tiny camera inside, to record what happened in the vagina during sexual arousal. Their fundamental discovery: that men and women have the same capacity for orgasm.
In 1970, Johnson said, “I still have a real thing against the fact that 95 per cent of the things written about female sexuality in the past were written by men—without ever thinking to consult women.”
In a 1994 dual interview, Masters told the New York Times, “I desperately needed a female, an intelligent woman who would have original thoughts.” Johnson put in, “In two things we have common ground—the drive to do something extraordinary and an appreciation of the subject matter.” Their mutual appreciation was such that they married in 1971. After their divorce in 1993, they remained research partners.
Lizzie Crocker wrote in The Daily Beast, “The fact that Masters gave Johnson equal billing on his life’s work—something most male doctors at the time would never dream of doing—was a reflection of how much he admired and adored her. Masters had the degree, but it was Gini who, by sheer dint of her energy, intellect, and charisma, was largely responsible for the success of their work.”
The two remain so well known that the Showtime series Masters of Sex, based on their story, has run for three seasons. It began to air shortly after Virginia Johnson died at the age of 88. She once said, accurately if immodestly, “We are [to sex] like Kleenex is to tissue.”