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The Pill turns 50

May 10, 2010


Elaine Tyler May.

Regents Professor Elaine Tyler May has written a new history of the birth control pill.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary

Elaine Tyler May recounts the lively history of oral contraception in a new book

By Deane Morrison

When approved by the Food and Drug Administration 50 years ago, the birth control pill was hailed as the great liberator of women and the antidote to poverty, overpopulation, unhappy marriages, abortion, unwed motherhood, and the spread of Communism.

Others called it a marriage-killer, a spawner of licentiousness, and a Communist plot.

Today the pill has become a staple of contraception. But it's been a rough ride, as University of Minnesota professor Elaine Tyler May shows in her new book, "America and the Pill: A history of promise, peril, and liberation."

Mothers of invention

The pill has no clear father, says May, but it has two very clear mothers: birth control activists Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick. Without the work of these two, the research that led to the pill would not have been possible. Especially key was the monetary support from McCormick, heir to the International Harvester fortune.

May takes us along on that ride, ending with the conclusion that the pill neither drove the sexual revolution nor lived up to its billing as a force that would single-handedly transform society for good or ill.

"The pill didn't solve population, poverty, divorce, or unwed pregnancy problems," says May. "And the idea that it would create sexual chaos didn't happen."

Nor did it liberate women. Instead, women liberated themselves and created new career opportunities during the 1960s and later decades.

"It was the feminist movement that opened those doors. The pill allowed women to walk through," notes May.

Challenging authority

The pill also became a linchpin for widespread challenges to religious and secular authority. For example, many Catholic women and couples used the pill in defiance of the church's ban on birth control.

May recounts how availability of the pill and other contraceptives was an issue for doctors and birth control activists who openly flouted state bans on disseminating information on birth control, let alone birth control itself. One such challenge resulted in the Supreme Court's 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which gave married women the right to contraception in all states. In 1972 the court extended the right to unmarried individuals in Eisenstadt v. Baird.

A many-faceted issue

May's book contains stories from many women, each offering a different perspective on the pill. Some welcomed the new freedom and control over their reproduction, while others rejected it for reasons such as side effects.

And as for controlling population, the pill fell far short. To take the pill, one needed both a prescription and money to pay for a constant supply, two major factors limiting its spread in the developing world.

But all in all, "the pill was a fabulous innovation," says May. "And today's pill is much safer than the original pill, so most of the early risks have been alleviated. But issues of access, availability, and affordability still need to be addressed so that all those who wish to control their fertility can do so."

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

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Elaine Tyler May is a Regents Professor of American studies and of history at the University of Minnesota.

Read about her view of history.

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