The 50th anniversary of the Birth Control Pill: thoughts on the past, present, and future

Fifty years ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved the contraceptive drug that is commonly known today as simply “the pill.” In an interview with Marty Moss-Coane of WHYY radio, social historian Elaine Tyler May illustrates the hopes and fears of second-wave feminists and their opponents at the dawn of this revolutionary drug. Despite its widespread use (80% of today’s women of childbearing age have taken the pill at some time), it has not fulfilled hopes of eradicating poverty nor effectuated sexual chaos.  In fact, Tyler May asserts:

“It would not have been socially or culturally… revolutionary if it hadn’t been that it arrived in 1960 just at the dawning of the second wave of feminism when women themselves were becoming much more active in opening up doors that had been closed to them.”

However, she does not belittle the fact that putting greater power to control reproduction into the hands of women led to their increased autonomy in all aspects of life. But recognizing the slow-to-change laws and social attitudes at the time of its introduction sheds light on why this may not have happened without the backing of a feminist movement.

In 1960, twenty-two states had laws on the books that prohibited access to contraception. Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled that married women were allowed access to the contraceptive, but single women were still denied access in many states. It wasn’t until 1972, twelve years after initial approval by the FDA, that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of access for all women, regardless of marital status. Even at this time, Tyler May describes the obstacles that single women faced in the form of reluctant doctors, who had to be persuaded and sometimes tricked into believing that the women were married or soon-to-be married in order to prescribe the contraceptive.

Fifty years later, access to the pill is still impeded by political, economic, and social factors.  Many women can’t afford the drug (even those with health insurance, as it is frequently not covered), and abstinence education in schools obscures information for teenagers. A contraceptive pill for men has not been successfully developed, or even widely discussed.

Tyler May sees the pill as having allowed a sexual act to be separated from its reproductive repercussions, and greatly enhanced sexual relationships. It has allowed women to succeed in careers that were otherwise not possible due to the expectation of unplanned pregnancies by managers, co-workers, and the women themselves. Above all, it has given many women greater control of their reproductive capabilities, which has meant greater control of their lives.

We have come a long way from the contraceptive efforts of women in the 19th century, which Tyler May points out effectively reduced the rate of childbirth from seven to three and a half from 1800 to 1900. But we still have possibilities to explore in female and male contraceptives as well as a long way to go in making accessibility a priority.

To read more about the evolution of contraception in America, check out Tyler May’s new book, “America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation.”

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