Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Pill, the Sexual Revolution, and the Counter Revolution


                                                        A Canadian bottle of Searle's Enovid contraception tablets a/k/a The Pill.

It’s hard to believe that only sixty three years ago today in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally approved marketing G. D. Searle Pharmaceutical Corporations Enovid as an oral contraceptive.  That makes May 9 sort of the birthday of The Pill. 

Of course, its story goes back earlier.  Pioneering birth control advocate Margaret Sanger had long sought a safe and reliable form of contraception that women themselves could use and control unlike condoms.  In 1953 she brought her long-time associate and supporter Katharine McCormick together with noted hormonal biology researcher Dr. Gregory Pincus who had been trying to develop a contraceptive since 1951.  McCormick, a wealthy widow, agreed to finance Pincus’s research and pay for trials of a breakthrough drug.  

Dr. Gregory Pincus--the Father or maybe step father of The Pill.

Pincus had tried to convince Searle to support his research, but the company was afraid of becoming involved in such a controversial project.  A Searle researcher, Frank Colton, however had accidentally discovered a formula that had a contraceptive effect.  Pincus was allowed to use it in his research and conduct trial tests.  Two million dollars of McCormick’s money financed the tests. 

In 1957 Searle agreed to market the drug when the FDA approved it for use in treating hormonal imbalances in gynecological cases.  Doctors recognized that it also was an effective and safe contraceptive and began to prescribe it for that purpose even without official FDA approval for that use.  Searle marketed the drug but kept a low profile.  

The Pill was the fulfillment of Margaret Sanger's long cherished dream of reliable contraception that women could use and control themselves.  She swung the full strength of Planned Parenthood behind a campaign to get it legalized for all women in all states.

Sanger and her organization, Planned Parenthood, actively campaigned for FDA approval.  That approval finally came on this date in 1960.  

Timid and reluctant Searle quickly realized that they had a license to print money as women stormed their doctors’ offices to demand the Pill. 

Although the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, contraceptives were not available to married women in all states until Supreme Court ruled in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and were not available to unmarried women in all states until the Eisenstadt v. Baird case in 1972.

The Pill is widely viewed as having far reaching cultural and behavioral consequences.  Just as conservatives had feared, one of the first notable affects was to liberate women sexually.  With the Pill they could and did become sexually active in the way that only men could be before.  The Sexual Revolution   of the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s would not have been possible without the Pill and the widespread availability of effective antibiotics for the treatment of venereal disease.

The Pill liberated women from the slavery of compulsory motherhood.  Women were able to be sexual beings, delay marriage and/or motherhood and enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers as self-supporting human beings.  

I doubt that this is a real ad--most likely a paste-up job either as satire or as part of an anti-Pill campaign.  But it does accurately suggest the sense of sexual liberation and empowerment /The Pill brought to millions of young women.

Most women did eventually elect to become mothers, but it was more on their own terms, at significantly older ages, and they tended to have small families with one or two children instead of the big, multi-children families that had earlier been standard.  The children that were born were both wanted and planned for.  The Pill both changed and enhanced the experience of motherhood.  


The rise of AIDS and a near pandemic of other sexually transmitted diseases took the wind out of the sails of the Sexual Revolution.

Although the Sexual Revolution was slowed by the stark realities of the AIDS  epidemic in the 1980’s, women still relied on the Pill—now available in a variety of compositions and dosages—to regulate family planning.  It became second nature and taken for granted. 

While big cultural battles were being fought over abortion, however, a combination of quiet but persistent agitation by the religious right, soaring costs, and the increasing lack of insurance meant that contraception was harder for many women to find and afford.  Encouraged by the capture of several state governments by ultra conservatives who began to succeed in limiting abortion by making it as difficult and expensive as possible to obtain, religious right operatives turned to similar strategiesto make it harder for women to obtain contraceptives.

Unplanned pregnancies, particularly among the young and uninsured, are once again on the rise.  Women are slowly becoming aware that gains thought secure decades ago must be fought for again.     

Religious Right zealots and right wing activists have targeted The Pill and Planned parenthood with alarming success.

It may be hard for the American Taliban to force the genie of independent women back into the bottle.  But they are trying mighty hard.  Perhaps it’s time for women and their allies to smash the bottle itself.


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