May 07 2010
Fifty years old and misunderstood.
Feel free to nod your head in sympathy.
As the Pill celebrates its half centenary tomorrow menopausal on
Mother's Day, the Pill was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration on May 9, 1960 we note an outpouring of romanticized
memories of the magic tablet in the discreet yet instantly
identifiable compact and its causal relationship with the sexual revolution.
You know. The Sixties. Young people in India cotton tops unreservedly
rutting in the tall grasses, suddenly freed from the worries of
pregnancy. Peace, love, Haight-Ashbury.
Whatever would they have been doing were it not for the Pill?
Rutting in the tall grasses in India cotton tops, that's what.
Elizabeth Watkins, author of On the Pill: A Social History of Oral
Contraceptives, 1950-1970 and a professor of history at the
University of California, San Francisco, isn't at all surprised that
the Pill's birthday has bestirred, as it were, such gauzy imaginings.
"It's a media construct that was very easy to make because the Pill
is such an iconic little symbol and it looks nice on magazine feature
covers and it was this sort of single object that social and cultural
commentators could point to as something that had changed between the
Fifties and the Sixties," she says.
Looking behind the data Watkins documented a very different story.
Women did rush to take up the Pill married women. "Within the first
five years of its release something like a quarter of all married
women of reproductive age had used the Pill, so clearly there was a
big shift and a concomitant decrease in the proportion of women using
diaphragms and condoms," she says.
"Let's look at their behaviours," says Alan Petigny, author of
Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965. "Between the years 1940 and
1960, the period where the received narrative insists the sexual
revolution had not yet unfolded, there was more than a threefold
increase in the level of single motherhood or the level of
illegitimacy." In Petigny's analysis, the groundswell started and
Baby Boomers who can't bear any images of their own parents actually
having sex may want to avert their eyes here in the immediate
The sex lives of single women in the Sixties were, thereby,
evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Elizabeth Tyler May, professor of American studies and history at the
University of Minnesota, is the author of the just released America +
The Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. "We know
millions of women immediately started taking the Pill in 1960," she
says. "But it was very difficult for single women to get the Pill . .
. There's no data on that. We know that it was very hard and we know
there were very few."
If large numbers of sexually active single women had used it, Tyler
May posits, there would have been a notable decline in abortions as
well as out-of-wedlock births. But that didn't happen. Nor is there
any evidence that the tiny tablet wooed significant numbers of
theretofore not sexually active single women. "Polls taken at the
time indicated that single women who were already sexually active
were enthusiastic about the Pill because it allowed them to enjoy sex
more fully," Tyler May writes. "But those who were not engaging in
sex were not likely to do so simply because the pill was now available."
There have been varied attempts to place the Pill in a narrative to
which it does not belong. In March, 2000, The New Yorker's Malcolm
Gladwell riffed about John Rock, the American physician who devoted
much of his career to women's infertility and who guided the Pill
through the FDA approval process. Gladwell conflated Rock's
Catholicism with the Pill's mimicking of the 28-day cycle: three
weeks on the drug; one week on the placebo. The drug, Gladwell thusly
deduced, was "shaped by the dictates of the Catholic church by John
Rock's desire to make this new method of birth control seem as
natural as possible."
Having been privy to all of Rock's papers, and having coauthored The
Fertility Doctor: John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution, Margaret
Marsh declares Gladwell "totally wrong . . . It wasn't Rock's idea to
do the Pill in a monthly cycle. It was Gregory Pincus's, who was of
course the lead biologist on the Pill."
Marsh, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Rutgers, Camden,
adds that Rock bravely "believed in peoples' rights to use birth
control. He didn't care about what the church thought."
The Pill's true narrative hasn't been helped by the collapsing of one
of its highest hopes: population control. Four months prior to its
approval for birth control, when the drug was available only on
prescription for infertility and menstrual disorders, The New Yorker
published a cartoon of two women gazing into the busy chamber of the
United Nations. "Why all the fuss?" one asks of the other. "I thought
they had a little pill to keep the population from exploding."
Seven years later Time magazine dubbed the Pill the "miraculous tablet."
"If the Pill can defuse the population explosion," the magazine
theorized, "it will go far toward eliminating hunger, want and ignorance."
Elaine Tyler May recalls attending a medical convention in what was
then Bombay when she was barely out of high school. Her father,
Edward Tyler, was head of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Los
Angeles and had treated patients for infertility and menstrual
irregularities with the first pill, marketed by G. D. Searle under
the trade name Enovid.
"I remember this very vividly," she says. "A doctor got up at this
medical meeting . . . and he kind of threw out into the audience a
rolled up packet of pills . . . He said, 'See this simple little
gesture? This will be the answer to India's population problem.' "
Tyler May says the Indian women gynecologists in attendance believed
otherwise that the vast scattering of villages and the absence of
medical care would prove an impermeable barrier. India, Tyler May
records, turned out to be one the countries most resistant to the Pill.
What the Pill did create, says Elizabeth Watkins, was not the sexual
revolution but a contraceptive revolution, at least in the
industrialized world. "It helped to change the status of women, what
women could do with their lives," she reminds, as well as being a
catalytic force in the women's health movement. (Health concerns
around the Pill resulted in the first patient package insert for any
drug in the United States, to cite just one example.)
And today? Margaret Marsh co-wrote that book on John Rock with her
sister, Wanda Ronner, a gynecologist. "I've been at this for about 25
years," Ronner says of her practice. She runs through a menu of
ever-increasing contraceptive options. Injections. Patches. Rings.
Lybrel, a continuous low-dose period-free pill with no placebos that
would not exist today were in not for the Pill. It sounds like the
land of contraceptive plenty. "See what you've missed by being
menopausal," she laughs? "You haven't been keeping up with this have you?"