Login  /  Register  | 3 premium articles left before you must register. | Advertise
Preferred text size: Small | Default | Large

Maligned and misunderstood the Pill helped women win true independence

Published 06/02/2010 12:00 AM

If you're a woman under the age of 60, you probably take the entire concept of contraception, particularly the availability of the birth control pill, for granted. It's always been there for you and you've never known a time when you had to plead with a male doctor to write you a prescription for it.

If you're a woman who was born before Sputnik launched, you probably know well what I'm talking about and may have even had to prove to your doctor that you were engaged or married before he'd prescribe the Pill for you.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the federal government's approval of an oral hormone contraceptive for women, a drug that by the 1970s was so iconic, it was simply called "the Pill." It's become a cultural fixture and it's stunning to think that when it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration on May 9, 1960, there were 30 states in this country that still banned the sale of contraceptives, including Connecticut, which in 1965 lost a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned the law.

The widespread use of the Pill has been heralded as a watershed in the woman's movement, an invention that provided the framework of the feminist revolution. That concept, according to some historians and authors, is overstated. It was the rise of feminist activism throughout the early and mid 20th century that gave rise to the Pill, though certainly its introduction helped bulwark many of the feminist arguments after 1960.

The Pill for the first time put women clearly in charge of their reproductive choices and allowed many more of them to go to college and enter the workforce through the use of family planning.

Contraceptions, many of them rudimentary and unreliable, had been around for years. Think of the rhythm method, which required women to track their menstrual cycles to figure out that small window of "safe" days wherein they could have sex without getting pregnant. But the Pill was the first reliable, safe and convenient method.

Myths about the Pill have abounded over the decades since it became widely available, such as that it started the sexual revolution in the 1960s and lead to rampant promiscuity. It did neither, asserts Elaine Tyler May, author of the book, "America and the Pill, A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation."

The underpinnings of the sexual revolution began decades earlier in the suffrage movement, though the Pill would later become an important weapon in the arsenal of women who were fighting for sexual equality and independence from men, May argues.

"As the women's rights movement gained momentum in the early 20th century, activists demanded not only the vote but also equality in marriage, access to divorce and the right to engage in or refuse sex and reproduction," May writes. "The birth control movement emerged as part of this feminist agenda."

Though early critics of the pill insisted it would lead to unbridled promiscuity among women, others point out that the pre-1960s stereotype of chaste women was just that, only a stereotype. Prior to the Pill, single women were having sex in healthy numbers; they just hid it. The Pill for the first time allowed women to acknowledge their sexuality, though it would take more than a decade after its approval for that concept to really catch on.

"The Pill hadn't yet been invented, after all, when the Kinsey Report was published in 1953, asserting that half the women studied had had sex before marriage and one in four had committed adultery by her 40s," Nancy Gibbs, executive editor of Time Magazine wrote in a recent cover story on the Pill. "And most young women did not rush to embrace it. Many were uncomfortable with the idea of premeditation; 'nice girls' could be swept away by the passion of the moment, but they didn't take precautions."