We saw the obituary for Dell Williams while we were gearing up for our MiddlesexMD anniversary. Realizing how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality, we decided to start our sixth year with a series on those women pioneers. This is the first in that series.
The courageous pioneer Dell Williams died in March at the age of 92. She spent the second half of her life on a crusade to help women “define, explore, and celebrate” their sexuality. Back in 1974, she founded Eve’s Garden, the first store in America where women could buy vibrators and other sexual aids in a safe, private environment. All these years later, it’s still going strong.
Dell Williams grew up in the Bronx. After thriving as a WAC, in show business, and as a New York advertising executive, she made an unexpected career move, precipitated by a march. As she put it, “I stepped into the Women’s March for Equality in 1970 like a lamb and I walked out like a lion.” She joined the New York chapter of NOW, and “another chapter in [her] life began.” It was an intoxicating time, when women were giving each other the strength to redefine what their lives could be.
In 1972 she helped to organize the Women’s Sexuality Congress, which set her on the path of her life’s work. More than a thousand women gathered at a New York high school to talk about sex in a brand-new way. About the sex educator Betty Dodson, Williams said, “Her forthright talk transformed women from body-shy to body-proud.” Dodson recommended the Hitachi Magic Wand, which was supposedly for muscle massage but was highly functional as a vibrator. Inspired, Dell Williams went to Macy’s to buy one. The male sales clerk asked what she was going to use it for. The embarrassing encounter led her to think, “Somebody really ought to open up a store where a woman can buy one of these things without some kid asking her what she’s going to do with it.”
So she founded Eve’s Garden, first as a mail-order business in her kitchen, then as a store nearby on West 57th Street, discreetly upstairs. She wanted it to be a place where women could “celebrate the joy of their own sexuality” in comfort, at first with no men allowed. The mission was “to encourage women to take responsibility for their own sexuality, honor the sacredness of sex, and clearly understand that bodily pleasure and spiritual joy are one, and an inalienable right.” Kim Ibricevic, the current manager of Eve’s Garden, said that Williams “wanted to focus on the spiritual side of sex and felt that if every woman had an orgasm, there would be peace in this world.”
In a video made when she was well into her 80s, she is as warm and enthusiastic as ever. Flanked by two doctors, women whom she was introducing as sex counselors, she exclaims that “Eve’s Garden is just a garden of delights.” She describes how empowering it was for her to learn that she could take responsibility for her own pleasure, and how she had spent decades fighting for “women’s awareness that they had a right to enjoy themselves.”
As she put it, after so many years of studying the subject, “Sexuality is the biggest mystery of them all.”