Copley News Service, July 17,
pills helped empower women, changed the world
Author : Sandy Cohen
The year is 1959, the era of happy homemakers.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is president. "Mack
the Knife" is the No. 1 song. Single women
aren't eligible for credit cards. Birth control
is a crime in Connecticut.
The following year, Elvis will enter the Army.
John F. Kennedy will be elected president.
And the Food and Drug Administration will approve
a pill that will forever change the social
and sexual landscape in the United States.
Forty-five years later, the impact of the oral
contraceptive - known everywhere as The Pill
- still resonates. More people have taken it
than any other prescribed medicine in the world.
"The pill arrived at such a fortuitous
moment," said Roger Robins, professor
of history and political science at Marymount
College in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "It
was a product of what went before as well as
a catalyst of what happened later."
Cited as a symbol of the sexual revolution and
women's liberation, the pill was welcomed by
a generation mired in social upheaval, from
the civil rights battle and the Vietnam War.
But even drug makers couldn't have predicted
that this combination of estrogen and progestin
that prevents ovulation and pregnancy would
inspire such broad social, economic and political
"The whole anti-establishment movement was
happening. People were willing to think outside
the norm, and this was just one more way,"
said sociology professor Pam Brown Schachter
of Marymount College. "It opened the door
to a psychological mind-set of a life beyond
having kids and being a housewife. It gave
women a freedom they didn't have before."
No longer forced into motherhood by their biology,
women could choose how they wanted to shape
their lives, planning when to have children
and how many to have. Meanwhile, they could
pursue higher education and careers.
"Women cannot compete with men as long as
they're childbearers first and employees second,"
said Lynne Luciano, a history professor at
California State University, Dominguez Hills.
"The pill allowed women to stay in their
careers, and get pregnant when they feel like
it, not by accident."
For the first time, preventing pregnancy was
in a woman's hands. She could take the pill
at her discretion, without anyone knowing and
without depending on a man.
But when the drug was introduced in 1960, prescriptions
were reserved for married women only. Even
in 1967, with the free-love movement in full
swing, single women had a hard time getting
"We had hippies, we had the Rolling Stones,
we had drugs, and you still had to come in
with some kind of proof that you were married
to get the pill," Luciano said. "It
had to do with the promiscuity factor and empowering
Controlling contraception meant women could embrace
their sexuality like never before. Without
fear of pregnancy, women had more latitude
to choose partners and determine the timing
and frequency of sex. That kind of female autonomy
was unprecedented. "Society had a hard
time coming to grips with ideas about women
and women's sexuality," Luciano said.
A 1966 article in U.S. News and World Report
cited fears that the popularity of the pill
would lead the nation into a time of "sexual
"With birth control so easy and effective,
is the last vestige of sexual restraint to
go out the window?" it read.
"It raised anxieties about moral decay and
the eroding of traditional family values,"
Robins said. "Since then, we've seen the
rise of the religious right politically."
It's not as though birth control didn't exist
before the pill. Condoms and diaphragms had
been widely available since the 1840s. But
no method was as simple and effective as the
pill, which separated contraception from sex
Besides, birth control was illegal in most of
the country from 1873 to 1960. Margaret Sanger,
who first envisioned a "magic pill"
to control contraception in 1912, was arrested
in 1916 for opening the country's first birth
Undeterred, in 1921 she founded the American
Birth Control League, which would later become
the Planned Parenthood Federation. She made
it her life's mission to bring safe, effective
birth control to American women.
Three decades later, Sanger met scientist Gregory
Pincus, who would help with the pill project.
That same year, researchers extracted progestin
from a yam in a Mexico City lab.
"That was the start of the oral contraceptive,"
said Dr. Paul Brenner, vice-chairman of obstetrics
and gynecology at University of Southern California
Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Katharine McCormick, a wealthy suffragist and
early feminist, funded the research that led
to FDA approval of the first oral contraceptive,
Enovid, in 1960.
Within two years of its introduction, 1.2 million
women were taking the pill every day. But the
original formula caused serious side effects,
from deadly blood clots to increased risk of
heart attack and stroke. Still, by 1968, 12
million women were on the pill and sweeping
social change was on the horizon.
"It decoupled sexual intercourse and procreation
more than any other form of birth control,"
Robins said. "Now that it wasn't inevitable
that a woman would have children every time
she had sex, she could reconstruct what it
meant to be a woman. It also had a profound
impact on how we think about (sex), that the
value of pleasure, intimacy and bonding can
be separate from childbearing."
In the decades that followed, new lower-dose
pills were developed. The original contained
150 micrograms of estrogen, where modern pills
have 20 to 25 micrograms, said Dr. Ben Naghi,
a Torrance, Calif., gynecologist.
Levels of progestin dropped from almost 10 milligrams
to just one, he said.
These new formulations not only reduce negative
side effects, they also offer various health
benefits, Naghi said.
Today's pill helps prevent ovarian, uterine and
endometrial cancer, reduces cramps and heavy
bleeding and even eases acne and arthritis,
doctors said. It's 99 percent effective and
100 percent reversible.
New means of delivering the medicine that is
in the pill also have been developed. There's
a transdermal patch worn weekly and a vaginal
ring that stays in place for three weeks.
There's also a contraceptive injection that's
effective for three months and a contraceptive
implant that works for several years at a time.
Hormonal contraception, which started with the
pill, is the most popular form of birth control
in the United States, Naghi said. Eight out
of 10 women have used it at some time in their
In the 45 years since the pill was introduced,
women have entered educational, professional
and political arenas en masse. It also seriously
changed relations in the bedroom.
"In psychology journals, prior to 1970,
frigidity was listed as a major problem for
women," Luciano said. "Today, frigidity
has practically vanished from the literature.
It's been replaced by erectile dysfunction
and premature ejaculation, which were never
considered problems before."
The whole culture shifted to accommodate the
new role of women. Changing attitudes about
families and sexuality have had far-reaching
effects, Robins said.
"As we think about relationships differently,
it's opened the door for other people to be
empowered and accepted," he said. "The
gay rights movement, for example, is winning
success because of the changing perspective
of the meaning of relationships and sexuality."
The pill's effect has been so profound that most
young women today grow up knowing they're not
limited by their biology. They see a broad
landscape of opportunity that didn't exist
two generations earlier, Schachter said.
"The changing role and empowerment of women
had an impact throughout the whole societal
infrastructure," she said. "For my
generation, the door was opening at a prime
time. Now the opportunities women have in society
are just expected and taken for granted.
"It wouldn't have come without the introduction
of the birth control pill."
<< Copley News Service -- 7/17/05 >>
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