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 book 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.”

In 1951 a 71-year-old Sanger, ever the crusader, was to meet reproductive physiologist Gregory Pincus. It would be one of the most noteworthy matches since Adam & Eve.

Pincus worked at Harvard before his breakthrough achievement of the in-vitro fertilization of rabbits in 1931 scared the hell out of a public fresh off Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He was ousted from Harvard but continued his work at a private lab in Massachusetts. When they met, Sanger asked Pincus about developing an oral contraceptive and when he said it was possible, she arranged for her millionaire friend Katherine McCormick to fund Pincus’ research, in which he would be helped by research partner Drs. Min Cheuh Chang and John Rock.

In 1957 the pill, marketed by G.D. Searle under the name Enovid was approved by the FDA—but only for menstrual disorders and infertility. It was finally approved for use as a contraceptive by the FDA on May 11, 1960.


And Nothing Was Ever the Same

Within seven years of its introduction to the marketplace 12.5 million women across the world were taking the pill. Forty years later, it was 100 million.

Those of us who grew up expecting reliable contraception can’t imagine what a breakthrough the pill was. “I could foresee at the age of 23 having another baby and another baby and another baby, says Planned Parenthood’s Sylvia Clark in the PBS American Experience documentary The Pill by Chana Gazit, “The idea of being able to have sex as expected—whether we were enjoying it or not wasn’t the point—we were going to have sex as expected. And to be able to control fertility, not have that next pregnancy, was immensely important to us…”

All this sex they were supposed to have once they were married wasn’t something they knew much about either – it was, according to Clark, just supposed to magically occur. Good girls weren’t supposed to be interested. In Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Susan Douglas describes the liberating effect of the pill and other factors like Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 blockbuster Sex and the Single Girl, which KO’d the ’50s deification of marriage and homemaking, telling women about the fulfillment of careers and having a choice of sexual partners. Douglas writes. “For once women stared thinking that they could be equal in the bedroom after awhile they started thinking they should be equal in other places as well.”

Remember Gail Collins’ ’50s fun fact about employers not hiring women because they might end up pregnant? By the time the ’70s rolled around, widespread access to birth control had allowed women to pursue careers that required more commitment than their previous options and they started to apply to “medical, law, dental and business schools in large numbers.”

“It gave employers more confidence that when a woman said she wasn’t planning to get pregnant she meant it.”

With the fear of pregnancy significantly diminished we were now free to more confidently explore sex as well.

“The Puritan ethic, so long the dominant force in the U.S., is widely considered to be dying, if not dead, and there are few mourners,” according to Time, 1964. Contraceptives were legalized in 1965 in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut. Dr. David Reuben’s blockbuster Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask sold 100,000 copies in 1969 (it gets only an average of 2.5 stars on Amazon from our sex-savvy society). And in 1970 the Boston Women’s Health Collective published their seminal tome Our Bodies, Ourselves, which offered women a comprehensive, no-nonsense graphically illustrated book on about sex, anatomy, STDs, pregnancy, contraception and abortion, among other things. (It still averages almost 5 stars on Amazon).

Like a plant that lies dormant for a long winter American sexuality, once blossomed, began creating quite a colorful cascade, bringing us to where we are today: available contraception, an unprecedented acceptance of sexual lifestyles and Oprah talking about vibratorsat 4 PM on network TV.

Every yin has its yang of course and women now more sexually objectified than ever. For all the Girls-Gone-Wild ditzification, though, we’re also more powerful: no one bats an eye at a female doctor, lawyer or Speaker of the House, which was not true in the ’70s. The pill helped us to achieve sexual and professional self-realization, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, every day.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.