Marsha P. Johnson, the Revolutionary

Written by Nico Lueba Jones, a second year at Sarah Lawrence College.

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 4, 1945 in Elizabeth, NJ. She self-identified as a street queen and “transvestite” at a time when the word transgender did not yet exist, but she always called herself a woman and used “she” pronouns. The P stands for “Pay It No Mind,” and that was her attitude much of the time, with her friends saying she had an exuberant personality and a penchant for optimism. She dressed in brightly colored outfits and cared deeply for the people in her community, often praying for them. She was so generous, some of her friends even called her “Saint Marsha.” She has gotten a lot of attention lately as one of the trans women of color that Pride has forgotten, and many credit her with being an instigator at the Stonewall riots in 1969. The truth is much fuzzier than that, with Johnson herself saying she didn’t arrive until the riot was already underway, and her close friend and partner in activism Silvia Rivera saying she was there when the riot started but did not instigate it. She is remembered as a prominent figure nonetheless. Regardless of her involvement in the Stonewall riots, what I think makes Marsha so amazing is all the activist work she did after the riot.

    After the Stonewall riots, Marsha P. Johnson continued to advocate for LGBT rights, participating in and organizing protests. It was following one of these protests, a sit-in at New York University in 1970, that Johnson and Rivera decided to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. At the protest, many groups had come together to protest for gay rights, but Johnson and Rivera noted that there were no groups protecting the interests and livelihoods of street youth, particularly transgender youth. Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were themselves homeless and working the streets to make money, and they knew how dangerous it could be. Rivera even credits Johnson with saving her life, after meeting her in 1963 and offering her some comfort and constancy in her life. STAR was the first documented LGBT youth shelter in North America, and by the next year they had opened their first house for street youth in a trailer parked in a parking lot in Greenwich Village. When that shelter fell through, they got a building. Together, Silvia and Marsha provided a safe living space, a gathering space, and a space for LGBT youth to learn. STAR expanded to multiple cities before having to close in the mid 1970’s.

    Johnson’s activism did not end, though. In the 80’s she worked with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) as an organizer and marshall. Johnson herself was HIV positive, and participated in direct action demonstrations with ACT UP for much of the 80’s, and cared for many of her HIV+ friends. Johnson dedicated her life to activism, to protecting LGBT youth, homeless LGBT folks, and making her community better and safer for herself and everyone. She was an active member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), marching every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and her direct action both personally and through STAR helped feed and house many trans and gay homeless youths. She was also an activist against police brutality, regularly engaging with police who harassed her and addressing their harassment in court when she was arrested. Marsha P. Johnson’s activism extends far beyond Stonewall. As a trans person myself, I am happy to have Marsha as a radical trans icon, to remind me to always look out for my community, and when it comes to those who don’t like us, to pay them no mind.

Works Cited

Brockell, Gillian. “The Transgender Women at Stonewall Were Pushed out of the Gay Rights Movement. Now They Are Getting a Statue in New York.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 June 2019,

Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries .” Workers World, Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006, 11:53pm,

“Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries Found STAR House.” Global Network of Sex Work Projects, NSWP, 12 July 2017,

“From Cowtown to Gaytown”: Kansas Politics and Gay Rights in Wichita, KS

Korbin Painter (he/him/his) is an M.A. candidate in the History Department at the University of Iowa. He was born and raised in Kansas and he is an alumnus of the University of Kansas. His research interests include LGBT history of the United States and Germany, focused on LGBT politics, social movements, and the history of emotions. Korbin can be contacted by e-mail at

In Kansas, before the election of Governor Laura Kelly, there were no laws on the books at the state-level to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination in employment, housing, and adoption. However, individual cities such as Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City have enacted such laws. In 2007, during her service as Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius issued an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, in 2015, former Governor Sam Brownback revoked this order. In fact, during Brownback’s tenure, there had been many attempts by the Kansas state legislature to restrict the civil rights and protections of LGBT people in both the public and private sectors. Former interim Governor Jeff Colyer signed a law in May of 2018, which allowed adoption agencies in Kansas to refuse to place a child with LGBT couples on “religious or moral objection” (Polaski).  

It is clear that many Kansas leaders do not support LGBT Kansans. In at least the last decade, many Republican legislators have not only refused to support or enact legislation that protects LGBT people and their families, but they have also championed discriminatory and harmful legislation that threatens the lives and livelihoods of LGBT Kansans (Mallory and Sears). The elections of democratic Governor Laura Kelly and democratic Representative Sharice Davids signify the resilience and efforts of LGBT Kansans and serve as reminders of Kansas values and spirit. As we move into Pride Month, I am reminded of the radical history of LGBT people in Kansas.

Often, people who live in “blue states” and large coastal cities are quick to dismiss Kansas as merely “fly-over” country, characterizing Kansans as “backward” and deeply conservative. Without dismissing the patterns in Kansas electoral politics, this perception and characterization is unfair, inaccurate, and obscures the lives and history of LGBT Kansans, who have been active in fighting for their civil rights and protections for decades.

One example from LGBT Kansas history takes us not to Lawrence or Kansas City, often characterized as liberal hubs in the “red state”, but to the city of Wichita. Wichita, Kansas is perhaps best known as the home of airplane manufacturing, McConnell Airforce base, and the BTK killer. It may be surprising to some that Wichita holds an important place in LGBT history in the United States. In fact, the designer and creator of the iconic rainbow pride flag, Gilbert Baker, was born and raised in Wichita.

In May of 1978, Washington Post reporter Bill Curry visited Wichita to report on a major political battle over a gay rights ordinance passed in September of 1977, which would protect Wichitans from employment and housing discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. While Curry was in Wichita, he observed the anti-gay slogan “From Cowtown to Gaytown” littering car bumpers across the city. Wichita is known as “Cowtown” because, in the 1860s and 1870s, the Chisolm Trail, the Southwest Railroad, and the Santa Fe Railway ran through the newly established city of Wichita. Wichita thus became a major center of commerce and trade, as well as a railhead for cattle drives from Texas. The bumper sticker indeed represented some Wichitans’ homophobic fears about an encroaching degenerate sexual minority who “cannot reproduce so they have to recruit” (Curry).

In the 1970s, there were a large number of gay and lesbian people and organizations in Wichita. Gay and lesbian Wichitans lived and worked, attended Church, and frequented bars and other community gatherings around the city. One of the early gay rights groups in Wichita was called the Homophile Association of Sedgwick County (HASC). In 1977, the HASC took a proposal for a city ordinance to the Wichita City Commission and Mayor Connie Peters. Wichita City Ordinance No. 35-242 would prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the city of Wichita. Gay and lesbian leaders Bruce McKinney, Pat Kaslo, and Robert Lewis led the fight. “Kansans are conservative, but they’re not bigots, not all of them,” one woman told Curry, “if they were, we wouldn’t be voting on a referendum” (Curry).

Anita Bryant and “Save Our Children”, 1978

Soon after the ordinance was passed by the Wichita City Commission in a 3-2 vote, Anita Bryant – celebrity, anti-Gay crusader, and spokeswoman of Florida Oranges – mobilized in Wichita. Bryant and her organization, “Save Our Children”, had just won a fight to repeal a similar gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Bryant and “Save Our Children” began recruiting many Wichita pastors, like Ron Adrian, and campaigned to put a stop to homosexuality in the heartland. “The whole strategy of homosexuals,” commented Adrian “is to get homosexuality recognized as a normal lifestyle and an accepted lifestyle – and they’re getting a lot of publicity, that’s for sure” (Curry).

A fierce battle played out among Wichitans as the city commission voted to hold a referendum for the gay rights ordinance. In this particular historical moment, Wichita, Kansas became the battleground in the United States over sex, deviance, civil rights, and religious liberty. However, on May 9th of 1978, the ordinance was repealed. Gay Wichitans became the subjects of sensational news coverage across the country. In fact, the night of the repeal, the gay residents of San Francisco’s Castro Street marched on Union Square, chanting, “Wichita means fight back.”

Governor Laura Kelly, Representative Sharice Davids, Janelle Monáe, Former Governor Kathleen Sibelius

As a gay man, born and raised in the small town of Augusta, Kansas, I was filled with excitement on election night in 2018 as I watched the results come in. Representative Sharice Davids became the first openly lesbian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is openly lesbian but serves in the Senate). Alongside Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Davids was also among the first Native American women to be elected to the House. In the Kansas State Legislature, Representatives Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodard were elected as the first LGBT state legislators in Kansas history. Laura Kelly’s election to the governorship of Kansas was significant as she expressed support for the LGBT community and has a voting record in favor of LGBT rights. One of Kelly’s first moves in January as Governor was to reinstate former Governor Sibelius’s executive order and restore state-level protections for LGBT state-workers (Shorman). On election night, I felt an immense swell of pride and hope that Kansas leaders may soon recognize the dignity of LGBT Kansans and move to provide us with civil rights and protections.

As we celebrate Pride month on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it is critical now, more than ever, that we remember gay and lesbian radical liberation politics in the 1970s. When we do this, we discover that these stories extend far beyond the “Gay Meccas” of New York City and San Francisco. These stories remind us that LGBT people, love, and resistance are everywhere; even in Wichita, Kansas.


Cover photo comes from the @KansasDems twitter and can be found here,

Two brilliant and thoughtful works on LGBT activism in Kansas are Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland (1999) and C.J. Janovy’s No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas (2018).

Equality Kansas,

Wichita Pride,

Curry, Bill. “Wichita Gay Rights Vote Today.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 May 1978.

Gilchrist, Tracy E. “Kansas Governor-Elect Laura Kelly Moves to Protect LGBTQ People.” Advocate,, 9 Nov. 2018.

Mallory, Christy and Brad Sears, “Discrimination against LGBT People in Kansas” UCLA School of Law, William’s Institute, January 2019.

Polaski, Adam. “Kansas Governor Signs Dangerous Anti-LGBTQ Child Welfare Bill, Latest in Disturbing Trend.” Freedom for All Americans, 18 May 2018.

Shorman, Jonathan. “Kelly reinstates protections for LGBT state workers in Kansas eliminated by Brownback” The Wichita Eagle, 15 Jan. 2019.

The Mattachine Society: Henry “Harry” Hay and Harold “Hal” Call

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year graduate student in the Women’s and Gender History program at Sarah Lawrence College.

A year ago, when I began my Master’s research on homosexuality during the 1950s in America, I was certain that there was an abundance of research on the topic. I didn’t think there was anything more to discover that John D’Emilio, David Allyn, Estelle Freedman, Allan Bérubé, and Margot Canaday hadn’t already found. They cover such an immense breadth of information that covers the homophile movement, McCarthyism, red-baiting and queer-baiting, riots, Lewd Vagrancy laws, and sexology reports.  As I flipped through page after page of archived materials at the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections, I noticed that there is an integral piece of the history of the Mattachine Society and the homophile movement that has gone understudied or completely ignored.

For the purposes of this post I am writing today, I will not pose my question onto the audience (you, the reader) until I have finalized the thesis in a year from now. Today, I present to you a few members of the Mattachine Society that assisted in the early beginnings of the gay rights movement and key figures in the thesis I am crafting. Posts that will follow throughout the month of June that I intend to cover include the Daughters of Bilitis, riots (including Stonewall and Cooper Do-nuts), and historical figures of the LGBT+ community.

The Mattachine Foundation (1950-1953), later becoming the Mattachine Society in 1953, formed in the mind of its founder, Harry Hay, in 1948. While historians debate the exact year the organization formed, most conclude that it was 1950, but Hay conceived of the idea two years prior. Henry “Harry” Hay was born to a well-to-do family on April 17, 1912 in Worthing, Sussex England. As a child, his family moved to California. Heavily influenced by Marxism and communism, Hay joined the Community Party USA in his adult years while living in Los Angeles. When the party discovered that he was gay, they told him to either resist his urges or to leave the party, so he left.

Henry “Harry” Hay image from

Determined to find an organization that would welcome him for being both gay and a communist, Hay decided to take matters into his own hands and formed the Mattachine Foundation. The organization welcomed homosexual men and women regardless of race, creed, class, gender, and political affiliation. Despite Hay realizing his dream through the Mattachine, Harold “Hal” Call took over its leadership in 1953. There are mixed accounts on why Hay stepped down as leader; some speculate it was a disagreement the two had, others say that Call was a more conservative member and didn’t believe Hay’s communist beliefs could benefit or assist in the growth of the Mattachine.

Nonetheless, Call took over in 1953 and changed its name to the Mattachine Society. Born in Grundy County, Missouri in September 1917, Call enlisted in the military as a private in 1941, and went on to receive a purple heart for his service. Upon returning to US in 1945, he moved to California and joined the homophile organization he would later become leader of. His dreams for the Mattachine were realized when, in 1955, he co-founded Pan Graphic Press, which would go on to publish The Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and other homophile publications. His goal was to ensure that the organization would and could grow throughout the nation, while assisting other homophile groups in their growth. They viewed each other as brothers and sisters of the gay liberation movement of the 1950s.

Harold “Hal” Call image from

Call and Hay are only two of the countless members of the Mattachine that are key figures in the early beginnings of gay liberation; both considered fathers of the early homophile movement. The Mattachine would go on participate in legal proceedings, hold annual meetings in major cities, and help gay men and women across the United States. Under Call’s leadership, it appeared that nothing could stop the steady growth of the organization. Starting in 1955, chapters began in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. Some were short lived, while others have continued to thrive to this very day. Come 1961, the national organization of the Mattachine in San Francisco disbanded; thereafter, the society became a regional body.

Despite the disbanding of the first chapter of the Mattachine, the homophile movement continued to grow and change as most do. Today, the D.C. chapter seeks to keep the history of the Mattachine alive and well by digitizing the documents they have archived and offering resources to anyone who may need them. You can find them here: . Now that we are a full week into Pride, I hope that this post finds you all at a moment of joy and celebration among friends, family, and/or loved ones. For more information on the Mattachine Society’s history, I highly recommend the Making Gay History podcast; links for specific episodes are found under the images of Hay and Call.

Shout for Abortion

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Content Warning: Abortion.

Over the past few months, Americans have witnessed bill after bill proposed to restrict abortion access in multiple states. At this current juncture, these states include Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, and Alabama. State senators have taken it upon themselves to decide what every individual that is capable of becoming pregnant can and should do with their body; carry an unwanted, dangerous, and/or traumatic pregnancy to term. They have proposed that a bill, one that we know commonly as the “heartbeat bill,” pass so that an individual cannot receive an abortion at six weeks. As New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Twitter, that means missing a period by two weeks. Subsequently, the news that we do not have autonomy over our own bodies has cast an ominous cloud above all of our heads.

           In the midst of the terror I felt, and continue to feel, I went to a punk show. Half hoping to scream my lungs out to songs about Plan B and dance until my legs couldn’t hold me up any longer, I found myself in a room full of people feeling just as I felt: angry and frustrated at the world. The first band that played astounded me. The lead singer of Control Top, in all of their unapologetic glory, screamed for abortion access, and the crowd yelled with her in positive affirmations that we all felt the same; unapologetically pro-choice. If you’re anything like me, feelings of isolation tend to permeate when news that feels too deeply personal becomes so outwardly political. It may feel as though you can’t express your dismay to close friends or family that may not share your beliefs. Even if you turn to Twitter to vent, you inevitably run into another dude-bro hiding behind a keyboard that thinks he can tell you how to take care of your reproductive health.

           If you’re at all like me, you know how important these little moments of screaming for what you want so badly to have freedom to access are potentially stripped from you and others. I have spent a great deal writing about feminist punk throughout my first year as a Master’s student. While my entire life has been grounded in participating in the subculture, I often forget what drew me to it in the first place; May 17, 2019 reminded me why that was. Once the headliner, Tacocat, arrived on stage, I could feel the air growing vibrant in anticipation. Emily Nokes, the lead singer, is an activist and advocate for abortion rights for everyone. She assisted in the compilation of the recently published text “Shout Your Abortion,” a book about being unapologetically pro-choice.

           In the middle of their performance, Nokes stopped to have a short conversation on reproductive rights. “Abortion effects everything, in a good way, it saves lives. It’s fucking cool,” she announced to the crowd, followed by a round of applause and shouting in agreement. The band advocates for their spaces to be all inclusive, accepting, and positive. There has never been a moment, in the multiple times I have had the pleasure of seeing them, that they haven’t withheld their activism as punk musicians and activists.

           I have seen many, many punk shows in my life. No other band – with a few exceptions – has been so unapologetically for the well-being of others. The spaces that Nokes and her fellow bandmates create for their audience is almost otherworldly; something you won’t find anywhere else. They provide you with a deep feeling of comfort. You go into the show knowing that if something were to happen to question your safety, they would be there for you. The bands that played that night were so aware of the feelings that the crowd felt, they made sure we all knew that they were here for us, they feel what we are feeling, and will continue to spread their message. Abortion access now, unapologetically and forever.

The Horizon of Feminism: In Conversation With My Mother

By Alison Ferrante
Alison is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College studying Literature and Philosophy.

My mother, Donna Greco, grew up during the peak of second wave feminism; born in the mid 1950s, she came of age in Long Island, New York. However, despite living through such a productive and turbulent time for women, she was not at all involved in the feminist movement. I’ve thought much about my mother’s life in the context of women’s studies, particularly concerning the untold stories of  feminism: the women on the sidelines, just beyond the reaches of progressing towards their own full-fledged independence, and how their distance from the feminist movement has come to impact their lives today, in their later years. My mother’s story is one that I consider to be just as important as those of the icons that we’ve seen and continue to see on the front lines of the movement.

After struggling academically through high school, Donna began to study social work in her late twenties, graduating magna cum laude from Hunter College with her Bachelors degree in Psychology. She then went on to apply to graduate school; after receiving offers from Columbia and New York University, she went on to earn her Master’s degree in Social Work at NYU. Donna then went on to work in hospitals throughout New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis, later met my father, and had my sister and I in quick succession. She left her job, making the decision to become a stay at home mother in her late forties. After twenty years of marriage, Donna went back to work, and, shortly thereafter, divorced my father. Even though she didn’t practice Social Work throughout her marriage, she continued to hold her license to practice by taking continuing education classes, and remains qualified to the present day. Donna currently works at a residential memory care facility in Westchester, New York, and lives a comfortable life with her dog, Maslow.

Alison Ferrante:
How did you feel about feminism growing up?

Donna Greco: Probably indifferent. I wasn’t very aware of the concept, or what it really meant… my mother didn’t talk about it. I remember comments like “oh, well, I don’t mind having a man hold the door for me…” that type of thing. And because that’s the environment I grew up in, that’s how I began to feel as well. It wasn’t a big piece of conversation.

AF: As you were growing up, did your parents expect you to get married?

DG: Oh absolutely, that was always the plan. They said my sister would be a teacher because she excelled in school, that my brother would be an accountant, and that I would get married. In all fairness, I wasn’t a good student; high school was more like a social event for me. But instead of pushing me to do better in school, to buckle down and work harder, they said, “Oh well, Donna will get married and that’s how she’ll be provided for.”

AF: How did you feel about your parents’ plans for your future? Did you resent it, or did you agree with them?

DG: I just went along with it, and I really believed that’s what I wanted as well. I couldn’t wait  to be a wife and a mother, to raise children and stay at home; it was all I wanted. I was very much focused on boyfriends and considering them for marriage. I didn’t even look at what kind of boys they were, whether or not I felt like I could spend the rest of my life with him…Man, I was fucked up.

AF: What made you decide to go to college?

DG: I went to community college right after high school, because what else was I going to do? I felt so lost, and I was miserable. After a few semesters, I dropped out and went to business school.

AF: And by business school, do you mean secretarial school?

DG: Yes; learning shorthand, taking notes for your boss, how to type faster. I wasn’t very good at it, but I ended up getting a job as a secretary. I hated it, my boss made me so nervous. I remember the men, how they would look at me… like I was new prey. But then I met this older guy, a social worker, and we kind of dated. He was the one who inspired me and saw my potential; nobody else did. He took me under his wing and got me into the field, taking me through the process. I took classes to catch up, got into Hunter, and eventually studied at NYU.

AF: So a man stepped in.

DG: Yes, finally! He was compassionate, and he understood—he was a social worker.

AF: So how did you feel about motherhood at this point? Was that still the goal, even though you had started your career and gotten an education?

DG: This was all temporary for me; it was just something to do. I still wanted to be a mother and a wife. I even went to a sperm bank at one point, but decided not to go through with it, which was probably for the best. How was I supposed to support this baby, living on my own and working full time? I couldn’t hire an au pair, that was for the rich. But that’s how badly I wanted children.

AF: But you eventually had kids—how did you feel about raising two daughters?

DG: After being raised by strict parents who I didn’t feel comfortable sharing things with, I knew I wanted you and your sister to feel free to come to me about anything. I didn’t have that freedom growing up. I only had fear.

AF: How do you feel about feminism at this point in your life, in your later years? When did you realize how important the movement was for you and for women in general?

DG: I came to the realization when I was in an unhappy marriage, and feeling the consequences of being a stay at home mom after the divorce and being on my own. It had a huge negative impact on my career; there was a long gap of how things had changed, especially with technology. And depending on a man financially… I didn’t understand how bills worked, which really screwed me in the end. I wasn’t attentive enough, and I kind of knew it. I suppose I was more like a 1950’s housewife in that regard. I never once went into our joint account, I didn’t even know how to access it. After the divorce, I’ve had to learn how to do everything on my own, and it’s been very overwhelming. But after a new task is done, I feel great. As hard as it’s been, I’ve never felt better about myself and being able to do everything on my own. I love my life. It’s uncomplicated now.

AF: What advice would you give to young women coming of age today?

DG: Believe in yourself. With dedication, you can accomplish your goals and be successful. Surround yourself with positive influences, a good support system, and strong role models.

AF: On that last note: who was your role model growing up?

DG: For better or for worse, it was probably my mother. She wasn’t educated past high school. She would have done very well in college, but that wasn’t an option—it wasn’t even a thought.

I’ve processed my mother’s story as an emblem of the women who were overlooked, whether it be within their own upbringings, or by their lack of representation in history. In many ways, I consider her a late bloomer of sorts. This is not to say that Donna didn’t cultivate her own accomplishments, or that she didn’t flourish in earlier parts of her life; I’ve always seen immense strength in her character, whether it be from my own childhood experience, or through the stories she’s told me, particularly about her college years. But while listening to Donna’s account of her life leading up to her marriage, I can’t help but focus on these struggling seeds that she was planting along the way, the ones which would eventually flourish into the confident and fulfilled woman that she is today, living on her own accord. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she’s made such a strong social worker, or felt a calling to the profession. I see Donna’s work as advocating for the silenced, giving voice to those overlooked while the wider population was focusing on the big picture. My mother is the woman on the horizon—she has always moved towards the light. 

Murderous Nanny to Feminism

By Charlotte Manyasli
Charlotte is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College. 

“This is the first generation of women who were told by the society they are living in that they can achieve everything. That they could even be selfish,” stated Leila Slimani during a book talk at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, for her novel The Perfect Nanny. Slimani not only illuminates the complex responsibilities of motherhood, but also what it looks like to be an independent woman. She is a journalist on women’s and human rights issues in the Maghreb, as well as a non-fiction writer focusing predominantly on the issues of sex and misogyny in Morocco. Slimani draws on her personal experiences growing up in Morocco, her own life as a mother, and other significant life events in order to understand gender roles in the different kinds of places that have been home to her.

In Leila Slimani’s novels, she takes a distinct narrative stance in her books. She draws on morbid cases like sexual assaults and murders in order to criticize contemporary gender inequality. In her novel Adele, which she wrote before the Perfect Nanny she writes from the perspective of a mother and closeted sex addict. In her short story “Confessions,” the reader is enticed by an unknown narrator living in an unknown village. He reflects on his experience raping one of the local girls with his father. Slimani tells the stories that are untold: for other authors would not dare tell the story of a rapist or in the case of the Perfect Nanny, a murderous protagonist. Slimani proves that the unspeakable perspective is her comfort zone.

The Perfect Nanny, originally published in French in 2016, tracks the story of Myriam, who returns to work as a lawyer when her children are two and five. The story features various perspectives and a non-linear chronology. The plot begins with the brutal murder of Myriam’s and Paul’s two children, Mila and Adam, by Louise the caregiver. The story then backtracks revealing the frazzled sentiments of a stay-at-home mom who desires to return to work and an adored white nanny. Louise feels the need to serve the rich families but can never truly belong due to her low economic status. Yet, she tries to emanate the white French bourgeois class. The flashbacks also include smaller chapters of Louise’s past employers, Myriam’s mother in law, Louise’s daughter Stephanie, and Paul.

Slimani shows the intricate relationship between a mother and her children as well as mother and nanny. The question of intimacy is central to the book. Myriam, Louise, and the children experience an emotional and physical intimacy with a thin line between violence and love. Slimani explains how a nanny is the only occupation in which there is an expectation to love and nurture a child that is not one’s own.

Guilt is crucial to the novel. Who is guilty for the murder of the children? Is it the mother who returned to work or the nanny who was in charge of the children, but snapped? This question inspired the book and is central in today’s society. Slimani shows how what can seem to be an outdated gender role manifests itself in a contemporary metropolitan setting. In the novel, Myriam struggles to find a balance between her career as a lawyer and her desire to be a “perfect” mother.

Myriam begins motherhood by feeling that “She alone [is] capable of meeting her daughter’s needs.” Her attitude shifts as she is swamped by the responsibility of being a stay-at-home mom. She reflects, “For months she pretended she was okay. Even to Paul, she didn’t dare admit her secret shame. How she felt as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children and the conversation of strangers overheard in the supermarket.” Myriam embodies the typical anxieties of a mother. She feels that she can provide for her children yet feels a kind of guilt for not being the ideal mother who would love nothing more than to spend all her time with her children. She instead longs to return to work.

The plot of the novel is morbid reality. It is based on two real-life murders: the Eappon murder in 1997, and the Krims murder in 2012. Louis Woodward was a nineteen-year-old British au pair at the time and was convicted in 1997 for involuntary manslaughter of eight-month-old Matthew Eappon in Newton, Massachusetts. Woodward was charged of killing the baby by shaking him while she was in a state of frustration. Eappon’s mother and father were full-time doctors at the time. In the “New York Time’s” Retro Report documentary of the trail, the viewer can see how guilt was not only placed on the nanny, the murderer, but also on the mother. Woodward’s defense even goes so far as to argue that if Debbie Eappon, the baby’s mother, did not want her child dead she should have stayed home to care for him herself.

This acute statement of guilt is exactly what Slimani attempts to highlight in the Perfect Nanny. Louise Woodward even inspired the character of Louise, the perfect “Marry Poppins-esque” character in the novel. The Woodward case shows us that even though women are told that they can achieve whatever they want – be a mother and have a career- the old cultural gender norms of responsibility for the wellbeing of the child still falls in the hands of the mother, not the father.

The Krims children murder was the second inspiration for the Perfect Nanny. Yoselyn Ortega was a Dominican nanny for the Krims, a Manhattan family. Ms. Ortega worked part-time helping the mother, Marina Krim, to pick up and care for her three children. On October 25, 2012, Yoselyn Ortega was watching Leo Krim, age two, and Lucia Krim, age six, while Marina was taking care of her eldest daughter. When Marina returned home, she found her two children murdered in the bathtub and a knife against Ms. Ortega’s throat. The case raised the issue of mental illness. Can the nanny be responsible for a murder if she was suffering from mental illness? The jury rejected the defense that Ms. Ortega cannot be held responsible and she was charged with life in prison.

In the Perfect Nanny, the reader never learns the result of the case. The book ends abruptly with Louise plotting to coerce Myriam and Paul into having a third child so that she could stay permanently with the family. The last chapter of the novel features the investigator, Captain Nina Dorval, trying to recreate the murder to collect more evidence for the trial. Even as she retraces the murder, she relays the sentiments of the nanny falling into insanity.

There, she will let herself be engulfed by a wave of disgust, by a hatred of everything: this apartment, this washing machine, this still-filthy sink, these toys that have escaped their boxes and crawled under the tables to die, the sword pointed at the sky, the dangling ear. She will be Louise, Louise pushing her fingers in her ears to stop the shouting and the crying. Louise who goes back and forth from the bathroom and the kitchen, from the trash to the tumble dryer, from the bed to the cupboard in the entrance hall, from the balcony to the bathroom. Louise who comes back and then starts again, Louise who bends down and stands on tiptoe. Louise who takes a knife from a cupboard. Louise who drinks a glass of wine, the window open, one foot resting on the little balcony.

Slimani shows directly how the desire to be the perfect housewife and performing these duties unhinges Louise. The murder is not important, but rather where the guilt falls and the exposed of the inherent flawed character the sentiment of guilt and the expose of the flawed character, the perfect mother. Leila Slimani has done something genius. She reveals Louise’s sentiments of trying to achieve perfection and her inevitable fall into insanity.

Perfection is not reality and ultimately we cannot truly know what is underneath it. Louise and Myriam are used as examples to the various shapes of motherhood. The perfect mother does not exist even if you are a stay-at-home mother. Slimani unfolds the relationships that society resists to hear and gives them agency, but not because they deserve it. She tells the story to highlight how feminism has not lessened the burden of motherhood. The takeaway is that gender equality has not reached parenthood.

How Big Pharma Failed Women’s Health

By Nicole A. Swartwood
Nicole currently works as a Research Analyst at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She received her Master of Science in Public Health from Emory University. Nicole also holds Bachelors in Science in Mathematics and Microbiology as well as Bachelors of Arts in German Studies, Religious Studies, and History, all earned at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. 

The development of the oral, hormonal contraceptive was groundbreaking, revolutionary, liberating. The first advertisement for these oral contraceptives depicted Andromeda, who in Greek mythology is chained to a rock in the sea, breaking free; this advertisement championed that once women were released from the modern chains of a tempestuous menstruation cycle they would be free to live a life of fuller potential.

How could such a tremendous development lead to such a tremendous failure on the part of big pharma? Somewhere, along the way, pharmaceutical companies realized something about Sanger’s brainchild – it not only prevented unwanted pregnancies, but it also treated a slew of other conditions, from blood disorders, migraines, asthma, among many others.

With these realizations, however, we have rebound women on the rock of personal health surrounded by the sea of family planning. The use of hormonal contraceptives to treat chronic conditions creates a dilemma: do I treat my medical condition or do I attempt to conceive a child?

At this point, the author wishes to assert that she is not equating child-bearing with femininity and acknowledges that there exists a subset of the population that is content using hormonal contraceptives for their medical conditions. This critique is exclusive of that group (which may have their own concerns regarding access to birth control); it is for the women who have to choose between preserving their health and conceiving a child.

So why point the blame here at big pharma for expanding the use of a pre-existing drug? With the lengthy, involved drug development process, it has become common procedure to explore alternative uses of pre-existing, FDA-approved drugs; once a drug has been approved for use for one condition it does not have to be “re-approved” for treatment of a different condition. One-time approval is approval for universal applicability. The problem, however, lies in the focal shift of pharmaceutical companies from research and development to marketing of their products.

Since the development of hormonal contraceptives in the 1960s, efforts to develop new birth control drugs have stalled. The medical field has diversified the delivery method, leaving patients with a suite of choices from oral, IUDs, and inter-dermal transplants, but these methods have relied on co-opting existing technologies instead of new drug development. While this is a problem separate from the one being discussed above, it does reveal the new priority of big pharma – create and use drugs to maximize profits.

Despite this priority and the widespread applicability of birth control, big pharma should re-dedicate themselves to the development of new treatments – treatments that do not require an unnecessary, gendered decision from women to choose between her own health and bearing children. Why is it that women are faced with this choice? Several of the diseases that are currently controlled by birth control also face men – they receive treatment, so there must be alternative mechanisms of control. Would we ask men to face sterilization in order to manage their conditions?

The author issues a call for renewed drug development on two fronts – for new, treatments for these diseases being treated by hormonal contraceptives and for novel birth control treatments. It is time for a new pharmaceutical revolution for women’s health concerns – a revolution that truly allows women to break free of their gender chains and no longer be limited by gendered health choices.