Adventures in Feministory: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
At 82, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is still making the rounds. And, it has a lot to do with sex. She got turned on to the topic after landing a job at Planned Parenthood in Harlem in the late '60s. That's where she uncovered her natural knack for speaking frankly about the subject, which earned her the title of project director.
She liked her job so much, she decided to further her studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. Armed with a doctorate in education and family studies, Dr. Ruth became Dr. Ruth in 1970. For the next several years she gave lectures, taught classes, and conducted research at Cornell University Medical Center with the late Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, sex therapy pioneer.
She was discovered a decade later talking about sex education, contraception, and unwanted pregnancies to an audience of New York broadcasters. Betty Elam of WYNY-FM was impressed by the doctor's lecture and invited her to record a segment for the station's Sunday late-night radio show. Sexually Speaking, anyone? For fifteen minutes of straight up sex talk, Dr. Ruth got twenty-five bucks. The listeners loved it and for good reason. She brought sex out of the bedroom and into the living room.
A year later, Dr. Ruth was live on air. From 10:00 to 11:00 every Sunday night, the little lady with the big voice talked explicitly about foreplay, blowup dolls, and homosexuality. Such topics weren't run of the mill back then, especially in the wake of HIV & AIDS in the U.S. But somehow, a 52-year-old Jewish mother going on about coitus, condoms, and clitoral pleasure made it easier for the public to swallow.
The nation embraced the German-born mother of two. Big-time '80s celebrities and rock stars adored the therapist, resulting in a palette of TV and on-screen appearances. Dr. Ruth played an American philanthropist in Daniel Vigne's French comedy, A Woman or Two, starring Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver. She co-hosted an episode of Friday Night Videos with the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osborne. She's even been a square on the celebrity game show Hollywood Squares, sandwiched between a then-closeted Jim J. Bollock and still-annoying Regis Philbin.
Her life before settling into the U.S., though, wasn't as sparkly or happy. The only child of a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family in the early 1930s, Karola Ruth Siegel was five when Hitler came to power. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht in 1938, little Karola's life was shattered when Hitler's Schutzstaffel arrested her father. Julius Siegel was one of 25,000 Jewish men sent to a concentration camp. She never saw her father again nor her family after being sent to a school-cum-orphanage in Switzerland with other Jewish refugee children. Not wanting to live life as a maid, the gutsy 16-year-old went to Palestine, leaving her first name and Orthodox upbringing behind.
Grim stuff, so how about some Dr. Ruth trivia to lighten the mood? In the tempo of two truths and a lie:
Dr. Ruth had lavish sexual affairs.
Dr. Ruth married three times.
Dr. Ruth was a sniper.
Did you spot the lie? Read on for the truth.
Once in Palestine, Ruth vowed to fight for Jewish rights and joined the Haganah. Her duty? Sniper. The tiny teen could lock and load and throw a hand grenade. She had this to say in a 1985 People magazine interview: "For some strange reason I can put five bullets into that red thing in the middle of the target." But, before she ever got the chance to prove her lethality, her foot was nearly blown off from an enemy explosion the day she turned twenty. Gasp! She retired her duties to recover and had plenty of time to think about her future, particularly marriage. Despite her bold behavior, Ruth had insecurities about her body, worrying that she'd never marry. But, she did. Three times.
The first two marriages were out of convenience. She and her first husband, an Israeli solider, moved to Paris for university study. It lasted five years. She then got caught up with a Frenchman before setting off to New York in 1956. They married for legal reasons due to the birth of their daughter. Divorce soon followed as did English language classes, night school, and odd jobs working as a housemaid to make ends meet. Determined, she earned her masters degree three years later.
It wasn't until 1961 when she fell in love with her third husband Manfred Westheimer, also a German-born Jewish refugee. They had a son and stayed married for thirty-five years until Westheimer died in 1997. So, that trivia bit about lavish sexual affairs, well, Dr. Ruth isn't one to kiss and tell. Besides, she believes in marriage.
Today, Dr. Ruth continues to teach "sexual literacy" across the media spectrum: radio, commercials, broadcast television, cable TV, video, CD, print, and cyberspace—if there's something I missed, she's probably hit that too. She's managed to stay on top of her game while still playing the game, like fellow grandma sexpert Sue Johanson. In a new era of anything goes, she's having to share the field with younger, flashier, and raunchier sex talk show hosts, such as Dr. Susan Block and Dr. Ava Cadell.
The great thing about Dr. Ruth and why she remains everyone's go-to gal—marital convictions aside—is she doesn't have to show. She simply tells and respects everybody, regardless of sexual preferences or beliefs. And though she doesn't always address issues of sexual equality and her website lacks a LGBTQ button, Dr. Ruth values all people and their sexual preferences. She doesn't deny people access to "sexual literacy," which is why she remains relevant.
The only media backlash Dr. Ruth gets is that from her lesser-known peers—go figure. They worry she'll give bad advice and make false claims. "You're absolutely right," she says, "but then my friends can correct me." Priceless! She's a gem. Her zest, pep, oomph, or what have you, comes from a very genuine place always served with a bowl of warm fuzzies (and a hearty German accent).
Dr. Ruth Past: On masturbating elephants, gay pigeons, transsexual oysters, and eloping geese
Dr. Ruth Present: Also on masturbation
Interested in daily sex tips from Dr. Ruth? There's an app for that! Get iRuth along with Tips from the Lips and her vistior-driven Q&A on Dr. Ruth's website. It's worth checking out if only to watch an animated Dr. Ruth icon crease her brows when she cleans her glasses.
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