The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox

In May 1960, the FDA approved a new oral contraceptive. Somehow we are still fighting about it half a century later — whom it helped, whom it hurt, what it meant and why it mattered

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    Combined monophasic early contraception pill, 1960. Pink contraceptive pills (marked 'PD') in a circular blue plastic dispenser.

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    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. As for those notorious "fast girls," "the consensus among both physicians and sociologists is that a girl who is promiscuous on the pill would have been promiscuous without it," TIME concluded in 1967. At a private lecture at a California resort, a psychiatrist asked roughly 30 mothers whether they would allow their teenage daughters to take the Pill. A few said no, most were undecided — and one admitted she was already slipping it into her daughter's milk at breakfast.

    In later years, commentators claimed that the Pill changed everything for women. But real social change required the meeting of means and opportunity. "If there were no opportunities out there, it would just be another contraceptive but not revolutionary," argues Elaine Tyler May, author of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation . "The revolutionary potential of the Pill could never have been achieved without the opportunities that came about because of women's activism."

    Changing Roles, Changing Lives

    If the Pill's early impact on private behavior is hard to measure, its role as a flash point in public life soon became clear. When Dr. C. Lee Buxton, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medical School, and Estelle Griswold, head of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a clinic that provided women with contraceptive information, they were promptly arrested — use of birth control was still a crime in their state — and the case attracted national attention as it advanced all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut , the Justices ruled 7-2 that the Bill of Rights implicitly included a right to privacy and overturned the bans on contraceptive use by married couples.

    By that time the Pill was already the most popular form of birth control in the U.S., with 6.5 million American women using it. Many complained of side effects — dizziness, weight gain, nausea, even blood clots — which were partly alleviated by the introduction of a lower-dose Pill. But there were other concerns as well; within a few years of its introduction, powerful African-American leaders were denouncing the Pill as being aimed at "black genocide." They urged black women not to take it, arguing that a high birthrate was necessary to change the balance of power in America.

    Many black women, however, fought to ensure maximum availability for the same reasons other women did: when contraception was put under a woman's control, it put many other things under her control as well. As Steinem wrote in 1962, "The real danger of the contraceptive revolution may be the acceleration of woman's role change without any corresponding change of man's attitude toward her role."

    By the 1970s the true impact of the Pill could begin to be measured, and it was not on the sexual behavior of American women; it was on how they envisioned their lives, their choices and their obligations. In 1970 the median age at which college graduates married was about 23; by 1975, as use of the Pill among single women became more common, that age had jumped 2.5 years. The fashion for large families went the way of the girdle. In 1963, 80% of non-Catholic college women said they wanted three or more children; that plunged to 29% by 1973. More women were able to imagine a life that included both a family and a job, which changed their childbearing calculations. As an Indiana teacher, 23, told TIME in 1967, "When I got married I was still in college, and I wanted to be certain that I finished. Now we want to buy a home, and it's going to be possible a lot sooner if I teach. With the Pill I know I can keep earning money and not worry about an accident that would ruin everything."

    Employers, meanwhile, lost a primary excuse for closing their ranks to women. It helped that as more women were knocking on the doors, more companies were eager to open them; by 1966, unemployment was around 3.8%. Federal manpower expert Howard Stambler said, "There are almost no men left" to hire. That year the number of adult women working jumped nearly 10%. For the first time, they were hired as clerks on the New York Stock Exchange. "We never would have done this before the Pill," admitted one Midwestern publisher who began hiring mostly women. Female workers' median income, however, was not far above the federal poverty line.

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