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The Answer Blog

Archive for January, 2010

Celebrating the Birthday of a Sex Ed Heroine

January 15, 2010

Susie N. WilsonHappy Birthday, Susie!

Things were a little different in 1930. The US had 48 states, and a population of nearly 123,000,000. Milk cost 14 cents per quart, and bread, nine cents a loaf. But, to be honest, times were pretty hard then.

President Herbert Hoover was facing a national debt of $16 billion and skyrocketing unemployment as the Great Depression intensified. For those who were fortunate enough even to have a job, the average annual salary was $1,368.

In one very special way, however, 1930 was a pretty wonderful year. For on January 17th, 1930, a sex ed heroine was born: Susan Neuberger Wilson. We at Answer would like to celebrate our dear friend by commandeering her blog today and sharing a bit about her amazing history and accomplishments with you.

Susie was raised in New York City, attended the Brearley School and then Vassar. She worked after college as an education reporter for Life magazine in New York where she met foreign correspondent, Donald Wilson, whom she later married.

Susie and Don moved to Washington, where he became President John F. Kennedy’s deputy press secretary and later the deputy director of the US Information Service. Susie’s close relationship with Robert and Ethel Kennedy had a significant impact on her, especially a trip she took with them in 1962 to some of the poorest parts of Asia. Susie returned fired up about taking action, and began tutoring lower-income children in Washington. She earned a master’s degree in early childhood education, and was instrumental in helping to start the first school for White House children.

Over 40 years ago, she and Don moved to Princeton, and Susie, a mother of three, remained active in childhood education. But 1978 became another significant milestone for her, when she was appointed to the New Jersey State Board of Education. Susie famously asked the commissioner of health at the time at what age he thought children needed to know how their bodies work. When he could not provide her with an answer, a sex ed force to be reckoned with was born.

Susie’s fight for age-appropriate, medically-accurate sexuality education in public schools opened her to vitriolic criticism from opponents to comprehensive sexuality education. Unfazed and determined, Susie continued the fight—and New Jersey is now a model state in the provision of comprehensive sexuality education in the United States. Susie devoted 23 years to the Network for Family Life Education, now Answer, as the executive coordinator, and remains extremely involved as our most trusted advisor. Susie’s passion extends far beyond sexuality education to women’s health and rights, and she continues to lobby legislators actively at the local, state and federal levels for their support. A brilliant, compelling writer, Susie’s blogs, Sex Ed Honestly and Sex Matters, never cease to make us think or challenge us to be better people.

Beyond her vastly impressive resume, Susie is also someone to be appreciated quite simply for who she is. Spending time with her is like enjoying a seven-course meal—each moment is to be appreciated slowly, has many layers to it and leaves one feeling sated for the time being but wanting more. Chances are Susie will begin her 80th birthday as she does every other morning—by running six miles. My hope is that she will take some time out during this special day to reflect on the wide-reaching impact she has had on sexuality education and women’s rights for more people than I think she can even begin to imagine—just as I know that, rather than rest on her laurels, she has already begun her “to do” list for all the work she intends to accomplish in the decade to come!

Happy birthday, dearest Susie, with deepest gratitude from us all!

If you would like to leave Susie a birthday greeting, simply click here to register as a member of the Answer Web site and leave your comments.

On John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” After N.J.’s Same-Sex Marriage Vote

January 12, 2010

Our state Senate could have made political and civil rights history in New Jersey this past Thursday—but it didn’t. It could have brought luster to our reputation as a progressive state that cares for all of its citizens—but it didn’t. It could have shown that a clear demarcation between church and state exists here—but it didn’t. It didn’t do any of these things, because Senate members defeated the same-sex marriage bill.

Instead of guaranteeing all its citizens the right to happiness, as stated in Article 1 of the State Constitution (”All persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which [is] … obtaining … happiness”), a majority of senators gave in to the powerful impulse of fear of the unknown, fear of retribution at the polls by constituents, and acceptance of religious dogma to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.

For reasons beyond my understanding, 20 senators voted against the bill based on the general argument that “gay marriage would weaken the social fabric.” Only 14 voted for the bill, following Senate President Richard Codey’s prophetic words: “One day people will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ and ‘What were they so afraid of?’ “

The day before the vote occurred-and with the rights and lives of so many New Jersey citizens hanging in the balance—I thought of the Democrat from Bergen County Senator Loretta Weinberg’s words: “[Senators] can’t be hesitant anymore … they have to come to the realization that we were elected to take sometimes difficult stands, but we were not elected to only worry about the next election.”

Weinberg’s words immediately reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, which I hadn’t reread in years. I picked up a copy and leafed through it.

Kennedy presents his theme in the first chapter’s opening sentence: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues-courage.” Our late president is not speaking of physical courage. Rather, he speaks of “acts by men of integrity, who find it necessary, from time to time, to act contrary to public opinion” and “on national issues, on matters of conscience defying the angry power of the very constituents that control [their] future.” Kennedy applies this test to eight U.S. senators from different periods of American history and concludes that each passed it.

This book is not a polemic; it is nuanced, thoughtful, and balanced. Kennedy understands the tug of war that most politicians engage in to balance the views of opposing constituents. He mentions the specific pressures that most politicians face: the desire to be liked, the desire to be re-elected, the conflicting demands of constituents, the requirements of party obligations, and the inherent tensions between serving both state and national interests.

Kennedy writes eloquently about the need for politicians to compromise on issues, but not on principles, and to put national interests ahead of state ones at critical moments. He admits that beyond those he writes about “only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for survival in the struggle.” He suggests that politicians are reluctant to show political courage, because they have too little faith in the people and need to have greater faith in them-because trust in their power is the essence of democracy.

Kennedy knew that political courage comes with a price. Most of the eight courageous U.S. senators he profiled endured “risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”

Certainly the political courage it takes to vote in favor of same-sex marriage never entered Kennedy’s mind as he wrote his classic work. Yet I believe that had he been alive today, Kennedy would have sent this message to the state senators as they prepared to vote: “The nation is watching what you do. Act in behalf of its highest ideals and values and not necessarily in behalf of the citizens in your own legislative district, or even the entire state of New Jersey.”

He might also have used these words from the Declaration of Independence to reinforce his point: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When talking to senators about why they planned to support or opposes same-sex marriage, I heard only the most parochial and personal reasons. I never heard any reference to the Constitution of New Jersey or the Declaration of Independence. No one mentioned “the right to happiness” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.

Happiness for many gay and lesbian couples means the ability to marry. If most citizens believe in the concept of marital happiness, then how can those who can marry deprive others of the same right to seek happiness through this institution?

I wish more of our senators had reread (or at least skimmed) Profiles in Courage before they voted last Thursday. Perhaps it would have helped them understand the meaning of political courage in our society and how their vote affected not only people in their own district, but in the nation and even across the world. Perhaps it would have inspired them to seek a larger vision for our society-one based on the right of all people to find happiness.

If they had had the time to reread Profiles in Courage, perhaps last Thursday’s outcome might have been different.

In the final passages of the book, Kennedy includes a message that applies not only to politicians, but to all of us:

“To be courageous … requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstances. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”