Between Masters and Johnson — the influential St. Louis sex researchers who were married for two decades — William H. Masters will likely go down as the scientist of the pair. Virginia Johnson, who died Wednesday at age 88, was a divorced, 31-year-old single mother in 1957, when Dr. Masters, then a gynecologist at Washington University, hired her to be his assistant: He wanted “an intelligent, mature woman who could help put his female subjects at ease,” Margalit Fox wrote in her New York Times obituary. But in her early life, Johnson was nothing if not experimental in her approach to sex and marriage.
At age 22, Johnson married a lawyer nearly twice her age, mostly to defy her parents. According to Thomas Maier’s excellent biography Masters of Sex (it was adapted for a series by Showtime to air this fall, with Lizzy Caplan playing Johnson), she was delightfully ambivalent about the wedding. Asked by the minister if she wanted a photographer called, she said, “No, I don’t want to record to this.” When he didn’t want to have children, she quickly divorced him, and three years later married George Johnson, a nightclub bandleader (no formal wedding photographs then, either). She traveled and sang with his band until they had two children, requiring her to stay at home. “Musicians are night people and children are day people,” she explained to Maier. Johnson grew frustrated with her solo juggling act — leaving her children with babysitters while her husband traveled and she went to work as a secretary — so she divorced Johnson, too, after six years of marriage. Maier hints that there are rumors of third pre-Masters marriage.
At a time when divorces were taboo, difficult to obtain, and likely to land women on a psychoanalyst’s couch (diagnosis: frigidity), Johnson’s trial-and-error approach came with tremendous personal risk. When Johnson answered Masters’s want ad, women were few and far between on campus, but she hoped to get a degree so she could get a higher paying job. “She had her eye on something better all the time,” one of her colleagues told Maier.
For her part, Johnson wasn’t able to explain why she organized her young life around men she didn’t love. “I look back on that and I wonder why,” she told Maier. “I don’t really have an answer for myself.” She never completed her college degree, but she rose to be Masters’s co-author and co-director in their clinical research on human sexuality. By taking Alfred Kinsey’s sexual behavior surveys to the laboratory for observation, Johnson debunked the myths that kept women dissatisfied, like Freud’s vaunted vaginal orgasm. Maybe more important, Johnson gave future generations of women the vocabulary to ask for what they want.
Shop: Flat Sandals
Most Viewed Stories
It’s Harder to Be Thin Than It Was in the ’80s
Why Do I Jerk Awake Right As I’m Falling Asleep?
From Up Close, Raf Simons’s Vision for Dior Is Clear
The World’s Easiest Way to Highlight Your Face
A Pregnant Supermodel Explains What She Eats
Meet the Prom Queen of Instagram
Sleater-Kinney on Riot Grrl, Reuniting, and Portlandia
Michelle Obama: No Boy Is Cute Enough to Keep You From Getting an Education
Céline’s Woman-Friendly Triumph
Selfie Sorority Uses Media Frenzy for Good Cause
From Our Partners
How This Woman Lost 30 Pounds After Years of Ignoring Her Weight Gain
15 Ways You Know a Girl Studied Abroad in Paris
5 Must-Have Products for Your Makeup Bag
50+ Cult Favorite Halloween Costumes
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesSigourney Weaver on Talking to Ronald Reagan About Abortion Rights
He didn’t want to chat.8 Actually Good Things That Happened This Week
Baby sea turtles wearing bathing suits and a necklace for your pizza.Selfie Sorority Uses Media Frenzy for Good Cause
Take that, sportscasters.A Comprehensive Taxonomy of Men With Long Hair
And why we like them anyway.Teens Are Dying From Train-Track Photo Shoots
The popular photo destination is actually super-dangerous.‘Truly Ugly Guy With Glasses’ Is Europe’s Most Virile Man
Ed Houben has fathered 106 children — that he knows of.The Internet of Parents Is Miserable and I Love It
Why it's so hard to look away.Did the ‘Maxipad Bandit’ Really Think He’d Escape?
Not so fast, mister.Woman Driven From Her Home by Death Threats After Starting Pro-Choice Hashtag
The hashtag drew intense scorn from anti-abortion activists.Ice-Cold Teens Don’t Hesitate to Block Their Exes
"I’m just like this is irrelevant now.”
Come on, man.Are Newsletters the Internet’s New Safe Space for Women?
Whether you're Lena Dunham or an emerging writer, the format has an appealing intimacy.The Bennifer Years Affected Matt Damon More Than Anyone Else
It's just really hard when your buddy breaks up with J.Lo, you know?Someone Used Gasoline to Set a Los Angeles–Area Planned Parenthood on Fire
Police believe gasoline was used as an accelerant to burn down the Thousand Oaks facility.Michelle Obama: No Boy Is Cute Enough to Keep You From Getting an Education
"Compete with the boys. Beat the boys."Stop Time-Traveling to Such Lame Eras, Losers
You have a choice, people.New ‘Yelp for People’ Will Let You Rate Everyone You Know
Kind of like Lulu, or Hot or Not, or ...Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Glad She Was Trained in the ’60s
She's glad she was trained in the Mad Men era.Lena Dunham Apologizes for Joking About Abuse
"When I heard my own quote I was like, 'Jesus, Lena, no.'"Desperate Republicans Attack Planned Parenthood Chief’s Salary
"The disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today tells us what is really going on."