It’s not a tough pill to swallow.
Today more than 100 million women around the world use the oral contraceptive known simply as “the pill.” In America alone, the pill is used by nearly 12 million women. Yet despite its power and popularity, the pill remains widely misunderstood.
The invention was a crucial factor in the upheaval of America’s pre-1960s sexual norms. By allowing women to control the timing of family growth, the pill accelerated sweeping demographic changes that opened up educational, political, and professional opportunities to women as never before. In 1999, The Economist named the pill the most important scientific advance of the twentieth century, and it is impossible to imagine life in the modern world without it. But the invention of the pill was never a given. It had powerful religious opponents from the start, specifically within the Catholic Church. Financial and institutional realities of the 1950s, when work on the pill began, made contraception a poor choice for research and a risky proposition for business. Jonathan Eig’s new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (W. W. Norton & Company, $27.95) tells the story of the four unlikely allies—the revolutionary, the researcher, the millionaire widow, and the Catholic doctor—who solved the scientific puzzle of the pill and fought to make it available to women everywhere.
The story begins with a fading lioness of the early women’s movement: Margaret Sanger, once a formidable political force, she was increasingly considered a living museum piece. Sanger’s commitment to the creation of a safe, effective, cheap form of birth control whose use could go unnoticed and whose effects could be reversed was considered at best a quixotic obsession and at worst a costly and politically dangerous wild goose chase. Sanger found one believer in Gregory Pincus, a brilliant but unorthodox researcher whose brash attitude had exiled him from the elite research institutions of the day. With Pincus’s lab running on a perpetual shoestring and Sanger’s political capital dwindling, the project badly needed reliable funding. Enter Katharine Dexter McCormick. McCormick’s tragic marriage to a schizophrenic had politicized her. After her husband’s death, she commanded a vast fortune and used it to almost single-handedly fund the pill experiment. Finally, John Rock, a Catholic doctor with an impeccable reputation as an expert in fertility, would become the reassuring face of the project: with leading-man looks, moderate political stances, and faith in Catholicism, he would lend the pill an air of middle-class respectability. Together, this unlikely quartet, working out of Pincus’s private lab, ushered the pill through a series of ethically questionable human subject test trials before grappling with corporate and political interests.
A fast-paced narrative, accessible to the layman, The Birth of the Pill is thought-provoking social history. Weaving medical, corporate, and political history with rich biographical detail, Eig turns the history of the pill into a scientific suspense story full of profoundly human characters. The result is cultural history at its finest: inviting readers to consider a commonplace aspect of everyday life—the little pill and its distinct daily-dose dispenser—and restoring its intellectual and moral complexity.
Some Surprising Facts about the Invention of the Birth Control Pill
The pill wasn’t an accident, but it was a surprise.
The birth-control pill has been labeled the most important invention of the twentieth century, but no drug company, no university, and no government agency wanted anything to do with it in the beginning. The pill never would have been developed if not for a small group of radicals hell-bent on changing the world.
In the 1950s, it was illegal in most of the United States to disseminate information about birth control.
To get around the law, the inventors of the pill had to be sneaky. They tested the pill at first as a fertility drug. After that they tested it on women in mental institutions—without asking permission—and on women in the slums of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
They tried it on men, too.
The inventor of the pill, Gregory Pincus, thought it might work on men as well as women. When he tried it, the men experienced shrunken testicles and wild mood swings. The experiment was quickly dropped.
A Catholic doctor led the initial tests.
John Rock, a devout Roman Catholic, ran the clinical trials. He believed he could convince the pope to reverse his position on birth control by arguing that the pill was really no different from the rhythm method. He nearly succeeded.
Dosages of the pill were initially much too high.
Women suffered terrible bouts of nausea, among other side effects. But the men running the experiments didn’t care. They kept the dosages high because they knew that government approval of the drug depended on proving it was 100 percent effective.
The pill completely changed childbearing in the United States.
In 1957, American women had an average of 3.7 children. Catholic women had an average of 4.5 children. Those numbers began to fall immediately after the introduction of the pill. Today, American women have an average of only 1.9 children, an all-time low. The pill became a must for millions of young women.
Bra sizes expanded.
The pill even affected bra sizes. Between 1960 and 1969, sales of C-cup bras increased 50 percent, a result of swelling caused by the side effects of progesterone.
The pill did not launch the sexual revolution.
The pill effected many changes. It allowed women to go to college and start careers. It reduced disease and poverty. It may have even prevented wars. But it did not cause the sexual revolution. All kinds of cultural and demographic changes occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s to change the way Americans thought about sex. Alfred Kinsey’s report said that Americans were kinkier than they liked to admit. Hugh Hefner launched Playboy with nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. Housewives tucked copies of the steamy novel Peyton Place under their mattresses. The pill came along just when it was needed most.
Some things haven’t changed.
Birth control has been proven safe and effective but it remains controversial. Drug companies and government agencies are still reluctant to spend money on birth-control research. As a result, birth-control methods have not dramatically improved since 1960.