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How Birth Control Changed Everything

Within seven years of its introduction 12.5 million women across the world were taking the pill. Forty years later, it was 100 million. It changed our world forever.

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Every Day…”

If you have a TV, this jaunty little jingle has gotten stuck in your head. It features pretty girls in egg-yellow swimsuits and caps doing diving into a pool, ala the old Esther Williams films. The ad is for NuvaRing, a vaginal birth control ring that touts the freedom from having to remember a daily pill.

What most of us never think about when we hear the catchy tune is that 50 years ago the convenience of a daily contraceptive pill that works by suppressing ovulation was a godsend for women. Prior to the pill birth control was often unreliable—and in some states even illegal.

American pop culture likes to dwell on the “Happy Days” aspects of the 1950s—it’s innocence, abundance and optimism; and there were plenty of reasons for America to be happy, reasons beautifully enumerated by Bill Bryson in his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:

“No country had ever known such prosperity. When the war ended the United States had $26 billion worth of factories that hadn’t existed before the war, $140 billion in savings and war bonds just waiting to be spent, no bomb damage and practically no competition….we became the richest country in the world without needing the rest of the world.”

For all this, though, the ’50s was still the incubator that grew the unrest of the ’60s. Nancy Tuana writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “A 1956 Life magazine published interviews with five male psychiatrists who argued that female ambition was the root of mental illness in wives, emotional upsets in husbands and homosexuality in boys,” but, she goes on to say, “the increasing involvement of women in freedom marches and, somewhat later, the protests of the Vietnam War give rise to a budding awareness of gender injustices.”

They had a lot to become aware of.

A 1957 book called How to Get and Keep a Husband, by Kate Constance advises women against being “too self secure,” saying that “Money and beauty often impart a deadly independence to woman, weakening her sense of responsibility and her desire to go to the limit of her endurance for a successful marriage.” A magazine ad tells women that if the romance in her marriage is cooling it’s her fault and she needs to douche with Lysol. And in her boo k When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present, Gail Collins writes that in the ’50s “Loans were granted based on the husband’s wage-earning ability, even if the wife had a job, under the theory that no matter what the woman said she planned to do, she would become pregnant and quit working.”

Contraception had been around for a long time, of course; there’s a reference to the withdrawal method in Genesis 38.9, fergodsake. America, however, a had long suffered under the draconian shadow of the Comstock Laws of 1873, which banned information on sexuality and STDs and information on and devices used for birth control and abortion. The law was overturned in 1936, but contraception was still illegal for married couples in 28 states in the early ’60s.

Then Along Came Margaret Sanger

Actually, Margaret Sanger had already been a warrior on the birth control front for many years, enduring many arrests in the cause of women’s health; in fact it was her shipment of diapraghms (pessaries) from Japan was the case that changed the Comstock laws.

Sanger’s mother was only 50 years old when she died of tuberculosis, her health worn down from 18 pregnancies. In his massive treatise The Fifties, David Halberstam writes of Sanger: “She believed her father’s sexual appetite had expedited her mother’s death.” Sanger would become a nurse and the misery Halberstam describes in early 20th Century New York where she practiced included the fact that often a woman’s only recourse to “family planning was to line up on Saturdays with $5 and submit to hack abortionists.” In 1924 she wrote “It is almost impossible to imagine the suffering caused to women, the mental agony they endure, when their days and nights are haunted by the fear of undesired pregnancy.”

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