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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Sex After Sixty: The Geriatric Gynecology of Anna Kleegman Daniels.

Sex after menopause. Drug addiction. Abortion.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, to be seen as casting an understanding eye on any one of these was to invite social ostracism. To crusade for enlightened attitudes towards these issues could be the work of a lifetime as you fought against the common wisdom that older women should simply stop having sex and graciously make way for their husbands’ affairs, that the only way to deal with a drug addict was through state-orchestrated brutality, and that serial pregnancy unto death was the just wish of an all-knowing deity.

Being a social crusader on any of these fronts was a hard life. Being a social crusader for all three, well, that took a special sort of person, forged in hardship, and gifted with an indomitable optimism that empathy and understanding must ultimately win out over dogma and the red-limbed thirst for punishment. Fortunately for the people of the United States of America, a 12-year-old Ukrainian Jewish girl named Anna Kleegman (1893–1970) washed upon its shores with her pogrom-fleeing family in 1906 with the resolve already in her heart to dedicate her life to finding and alleviating suffering wherever she found it.

At every stage of her story, Kleegman showed super-human character and resolution, and never so much as in her early youth. Living in the Jewish ghetto of the small village of Borschevka, her father a revered rabbi and her mother a practical doer of deeds who had to work twice as hard to feed her family in light of her husband’s Talmudic ethereality, the boundaries of Kleegman’s life ought to have been tightly drawn: a minimal education; a well-arranged marriage; hiding in the forests from time to time to escape the worst of the tsar’s pogroms; and a respectable death after a life of efficient housekeeping.

But Kleegman seized the wheel of her fate at the age of 5 and held on with white-knuckled intensity the rest of her life. At just 3 years old, she astounded the villagers with her ability to make exact change in her mother’s small store. One of the entertainments of the ghetto was, in fact, to bring large bills to the store, make complicated purchases, and then watch this child prodigy produce the required change flawlessly.

At 5, Kleegman realised that, if she wanted to learn, really learn, about the world and its workings, she would need to go to the village’s Russian school. Her father objected instantly and categorically. The Russian school met on Saturdays, and to learn on Saturday would be to break the Sabbath. The school had never accepted a Jewish student before, and certainly never a Jewish girl. It was impossible, ridiculous.

But Kleegman was not one to back down from something merely impossible. She learned Russian from her mother’s customers until she could tell Krylov fables with dramatic perfection, and prevailed upon her father over and over again to give her the chance to learn. Eventually, the wise rabbi relented and obtained permission from the town council to allow Anna to attend the school’s entrance examinations. She did, and performed so well that the school made an exception to admit her to its rolls.

There were two problems, however. Her family’s poverty, and the matter of the Sabbath. But Anna knew precisely what to do. This now 6-year-old girl marched up to the school alone, asked the way to the school director’s office in her newly learned peasant Russian, and let him know how it was going to be. Her family was too poor to pay, and she would have to be excused on Saturdays with the promise that she would do all the make-up work on Sunday. The director looked down at this indomitable girl and bowed before her superior force – the fee was waived, the absences allowed. Anna would go to school.

While there, she went from triumph to triumph, routinely the top student in her class, her only competition the brilliant son of the village mayor, who became her best friend and who begged his father to step in and sign her valedictorian certificate when the village priest refused to do so (it would be an affront to God, after all, to certify a Jewish girl as the smartest in her class). Having gone as far as she could in her country, she turned her eyes to a land that not only educated women, but allowed them to become professors and doctors: The United States.

Her father at first did not want to go. He had a respectable intellectual position in a traditional community and could not reconcile himself to taking up a new life in an electric world. But world events conspired to change the rabbi’s mind. Antisemitic pogroms were intensifying all throughout the tsar’s dominions, even to the extent of encompassing as small an enclave of Jewish life as the Borschevka ghetto. The family were driven from their home once, clutching one of Anna’s fever-ridden sisters in a pile of blankets as they did so, to hide in the woods while Christians savaged their home, and there was no evidence of things getting better soon.

Meanwhile, Russia had stumbled into war with Japan, and further into the maddening embarrassment of losing that war. The mangled farm sons who had been conscripted into the tsar’s army started returning home, limbs lost, wounds open, too poor to call for a doctor, and entirely forgotten by the army that had used them, broken them, and then let them loose to survive as best they could. Anna’s mother saw the parade of suffering and resolved to do something. She tore up her wedding dress to make bandages and took her daughter into the fields to find the herbs required for healing salves and then, her young daughter in tow, strapped some old sacks on their feet by way of shoes and started walking from village to village in search of wounded soldiers to help.

‘The world is filled with people who do nothing, who let terrible things happen and are only glad it isn’t happening to them,’ her mother said as they made their trek and the bags binding their feet disintegrated under them, ‘That’s no way to live in the world. You must behave as though everything you do is important; then it will be.’

At the trip’s end, Anna turned to her mother and said,

Mother, when we go to America, I won’t be a teacher; all a teacher can do is tell people things – wonderful things and important things. But you are right it is not enough to tell people. You must do. People only really understand what you do. There are not enough doctors in Russia for the people. I will learn to be a doctor, and then I will come back here and treat the peasants.

Young Anna had her next goal in sight and, as before, it was up to the world to get out of her way. The family emigrated in 1906 and, according to the educational structure of the time, Anna had to be knocked back down to first grade because she knew no English. The prodigy was now the awkward oldest child in the class, but of course she would not allow herself to remain in that position. In a matter of five months, she worked herself up from grade 1 to grade 8, driving herself to learn unaccented English so that she could get on to her real work. She then graduated from high school in two years and, lying about her age just a smidge, went to Cornell University on a scholarship at age 15.

From that moment, Kleegman was a medical force sweeping all opposition before her. There were some perfunctory efforts by professors and doctors to keep her from various appointments or from talking about certain subjects, but how could those paper soldiers hope to stand long before the indomitable will of Battleship Kleegman? She quickly became one of the great Characters of New York City life. It is deeply tempting to fill this entire appreciation of her life with Kleegman anecdotes, stories of how she would always arrive to formal dinners three hours late with four or five strangers she met along the way straggling behind her; how she drove a two-seat Whippet and would stuff pedestrians who looked as though they could use a lift on top of each other in the second seat, in the trunk, and on the hood, to help them get a bit further up the road; or how she would shanghai friends with the promise of a bracing swim at her beach house only to lead them on a five-hour long goose chase through errands she had to run, ending in a freezing dash to a rain-soaked beach and the promise of sleep in a bungalow without a roof.

Her private life was the real-world incarnation of Katherine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby – a swirling vortex of chaos that threatened to suck everybody in its radius into an unintended and maddening adventure, smoothed over by the absolute purity of her intentions. But we are here to celebrate Dr Anna Kleegman Daniels, the physician, and so it is high time to get down to the matter of the work she won fame for.

She did not go back to Russia to tend the peasants, as there was a sufficiency of suffering right in her neighbourhood to fill a lifetime. She became a physician, concentrating increasingly on work as an obstetrician and gynaecologist. With her sister, Sophia Kleegman, she was an early advocate for birth control and sex education. Faced with the steady parade of broken and desperately poor women, terrified at the prospect of giving birth to another mouth they could not hope to feed, how could you not put your shoulder behind the effort to educate women about the workings of their own bodies, and placing in their hands the ability to break the crushing cycle of serial pregnancy thrust upon them by religion and tradition?

To those who were at the last step of desperation, seeking an illegal abortion, Kleegman’s first instinct was invariably to fix the circumstances that underpinned that desperation. If husbands were unemployed, she would make a call and find them work. If they did not have room for more children, she would make another call and find a better living space at a lower rate. But if, for all that, the mother was still determined that this child could only know suffering, Kleegman would direct them to a responsible physician to perform an abortion. She refused to carry out the policy herself, but she would not allow a desperate woman to run into the arms of a back-alley surgeon, and soon Dr Kleegman was recognised as a doctor who listened, and understood.

It is the middle part of Kleegman’s career that we know the best, however, as an author of books and articles about the biology of the post-menopausal woman. Historically in Western culture, menopause was the sharp break between Woman the Sexual-Reproductive Object, to be sought after and captured and Woman the, Well, We’re Really Not Quite Sure, but definitely NOT Sexual Object. Julian Haubold-Stolle’s book Oma ist die Beste (2009) documents the ins and outs of how elderly women have been viewed in Western society, originating in a fear that manifested itself in the witch or hag topos. Here, old women are forces of evil who seek to leech fertility from the young – sinister presences to be avoided. Of course, every thesis has its antithesis, and when the pendulum next swung it was all the way to the side of the Beatific Victorian Grandmother, the baker of cookies and sewer of quilts who was so de-sexualised that she could not even possibly be conceived of as a threat.

Synthesis came in the form of Dr Anna Kleegman Daniels, whose book It’s Never Too Late to Love (1953) argued strenuously for the continued sexuality of women post-menopause. It was shocking, even more shocking somehow than her espousal of birth control and sex education. Grandfathers having a bit of a dalliance with the office secretary, certainly, and only natural, but grandmothers? An abomination! She gathered her considerable energies to do combat with the myths that led women into frustrated lives of seclusion:

Thanks to our excessive prudishness and our lamentable habit of confusing ignorance with innocence, there is more misinformation, superstition and mystery about sex than about any other subject under the sun. This is not only a pity, but often a tragedy. For sex is an integral, vital part of every human being. As the result of centuries of old-wives’ tales and dark, secret whisperings the menopause has become a grisly hobgoblin that has terrified countless generations of women. Around this most normal physical function have clustered a small army of myths like moths around a flame.

She combined her gynecology practice with marriage counselling to advise women about the physical realities and potentials of their new lives, and to counsel men and women together about what to expect, how to help each other, and most importantly, what they could look forward to.

By the 1960s, the girl who had come to America fleeing the pogroms of tsarist Russia was an old woman looking out at a world bristling with radically new social challenges. But the youth movement of the 1960s, that caused many educated persons of her generation to retrench into a dispirited conservatism, saw Kleegman extending her broad-minded empathy even further than she had in her youth. She saw everywhere around her young people felled by drug addiction, and a justice system more intent on punishing than healing them, and knew instinctively that here was a cause to which she could give the last years of her life.

Throughout her late sixties and early seventies, she moved away from marriage counselling and towards developing therapies that weaned drug addicts from their addictions. In spite of being held at knifepoint and gunpoint by addicts demanding that she supply them with addictive medications, she continued her practice, meeting her patients alone and unarmed in spite of her family’s vigorous requests to find a less dangerous group of patients.

They should have known better. She had stared down a school administrator at 6, the medical establishment at 20, and now at 70 she was hardly likely to back down from helping those who lived at the tottering edges of the medical and penal systems’ organised ire. She continued faithfully serving the Forgotten of her adopted country until her sudden death in 1970.


My Mother, the Doctor (1970), written by Anna’s daughter Joy Daniels, is delightful in every aspect. There is not that much on her scientific contributions there, but as a sketch of an Auntie Mame-like medical crusader, it is absolutely irresistible. Kleegman also wrote a book about the sexual life of post-menopausal women, It’s Never Too Late to Love, which is a classic of which some parts have aged better than others.


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