The pill. So singularly significant, that’s all the ID it needs. And soon, May 9 to be exact, it will celebrate its 50th birthday. And while how much of the change those 50 years have seen can be attributed to The Pill is debatable, it’d be pretty damn hard to deny the effect that little plastic case has had on the lives of countless women. In the sexual realm, yes–although, as you’ll find in the current slew of stories on this very subject, many believe the link between the Pill’s arrival on the scene and the sexual revolution to be (wildly) overrated–but more so (wait for it…), in terms of the choices over one’s life that control over one’s body opened up. As Nancy Gibbs writes in Time magazine’s current cover story, The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom, and Paradox:
when contraception was put under a woman’s control, it put many other things under her control as well…
By the 1970s the true impact of the Pill could begin to be measured, and it was not on the sexual behavior of American women; it was on how they envisioned their lives, their choices, and their obligations. In 1970 the median age at which college graduates married was about 23; by 1975, as use of the Pill among single women became more common, that age had jumped 2.5 years. The fashion for large families went the way of the girdle. In 1963, 80% of non-Catholic college women said they wanted three or more children; that plunged to 29% by 1973. More women were able to imagine a life that included both a family and a job, which changed their childbearing calculations.
As I myself put it some time ago:
Finally, women could screw with abandon! Or at least with a greatly reduced chance of a lifelong reminder of a night of screwing with abandon. No longer would our dreams have to take a backseat to an accidental pregnancy. With the choice of when–and if–we’d become mothers in our own control, all kinds of other choices–like hey, what do I want to do with this life of mine??–materialized.
All was not immediately groovy, of course. Many doctors–even Planned Parenthood–would not prescribe the Pill to women unless they were married. The Catholic Church forbade its use. And then there was the stigma–that, though “nice girls” might get carried away in a moment, they certainly don’t plan for such moments. And if they did, well, it’s a slippery slope to becoming the town strumpet–or so suggested Peggy’s smoking gyno, in this Mad Men clip, who offered the sage advice that “even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands”:
That’s fiction, of course… but yesterday’s On Point offered the real-life counterpart. The show counted Gibbs and Elisa Ross, ob/gyn and staff physician in the Women’s Health Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, as guests, but the standouts were the callers, who recalled their own experiences, marked by the absence of choices when it came to their reproductive systems–and, subsequently, their lives. Two of the callers were in college and engaged or just graduated and newlywed when the Pill was approved. One, Catholic, said she sobbed when the Catholic Church came out against its use: she had a toddler and a new baby–just 14 months apart–and was justifiably freaked out that, before she knew it, she’d have an entire litter to raise. The other, just prior to her wedding, which was to take place in between she and her husband-to-be’s senior years of college, was denied the Pill by her Catholic doctor. (Which should give us an additional something or two to think about, in light of today’s “conscience clauses,” which allow hospital workers and pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, based on their own beliefs.) She got pregnant on their honeymoon. She loves her children, of course, but she said she wonders what kind of path her life would have taken, had things been different. But the best call was from a man, a physician, who said there was one woman in his class at med school. In 1990, he returned to that school, as Dean, to a class of med students that was nearly 50% female. And he thought it was wonderful: “Women are born healers,” he said. “Men have to be taught.”
Indeed, left without the excuse that hiring women–or even accepting them into school–would be a waste, as they might get pregnant and drop out or quit at any time, women’s numbers both in the workplace and in college exploded. Which is, of course, good stuff. The Pill, low unemployment (Gibbs quotes federal manpower expert Howard Stambler saying, of 1966’s 3.8% unemployment rate, “There are almost no men left” to hire), the strengthening women’s movement, Title IX, they all conspired to bring women into the fold. And, historically speaking, quickstyle. But, pithy as ever, Gloria Steinem in 1962 offered an insightful warning:
‘The real danger of the contraceptive revolution may be the acceleration of woman’s role change without any corresponding change of man’s attitude toward her role.’
And that, dear reader, is the rub–and not just in terms of man’s attitude. But in terms of our own aptitude to deal with all the incredible choices we have before us–and in society’s aptitude to support the woman who wants both, to be a mother to her children and the mistress of her own destiny.