Ever wondered how the miraculous piece of technology called the birth control pill got created? Then here is the book for you
It was the 1950s in America and four individuals collaborated to create the birth control pill. It was a time when the fear of pregnancy loomed over women, particularly with abortions being illegal, and the beginning of Baby Boom. But there was something else in the works.
For ten years, a 71-year-old activist called Margaret Sanger had been campaigning for women’s rights over their fertility, repeating until everyone had heard of her, that women would never be equal until they had control over their this aspect.
And then she bumped into a 45-year-old Harvard-based biologist named Gregory Pincus. He had acquired a pretty notorious reputation after newspapers in 1934 mistakenly claimed that he had created rabbits in test tubes, and made him sound like Bokanovsky, the nutty biologist in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Suddenly everyone was speculating about how this research could free women from the pressures of childbirth.
Then Sanger got a letter from someone named Katherine Dexter McCormick, a widow rolling in money, who showed an interest in funding research on contraceptives. She was the former Vice-President of the Woman Suffrage Association, and had been involved with the first international summit on birth control in 1927. Sanger began hounding him to create a drug that would prevent ovulation, and a Catholic doctor named John Rock, who had been involved in the Planned Parenthood scheme, fought his church to make sure the new drug was accepted (despite being embroiled in controversies). By 1970 the pill had proved to have palpable effects — women were more likely to postpone marriage, pursue careers, or go to graduate school in the states which had lower ages of consent for contraception.
Jonathan Eig’s book The Birth of the Pill pieces together information to describe how these four seemingly very different individuals were seminal to the birth control revolution.
Here are some fun bits from the book which capture the mood of the times in which the pill was invented:
She was an old woman who loved sex, and had spent forty years seeking a way to make it better. Though her red hair had gone gray and her heart was failing, she had not given up. Her desire, she said, was as strong and simple as ever. She wanted a scientific method of birth control, something magical that would permit a woman to have sex as often as she liked without becoming pregnant. It stuck her as a reasonable wish, yet through the years one scientist after another had told her no, it couldn’t be done.
Sex was bubbling onto the surface of American life. It was becoming more casual, not to mention more profitable. In 1948, when the Popular Library reissued its 1925 bestseller The Private Life of Helen of Troy, the cover image of Helen showed her clad in a sheer dress, her nipples erect, with a Trojan horse seemingly aimed at her pelvis. “HER LUST CAUSED THE TROJAN WAR,” read the banner headline atop the book. Pulp paperbacks became huge sellers, with even classic books such as All Quiet on the Western Front repackaged with images of half-naked women to suggest that they were really stories of yearning and sexual perversion.
But there were signs in the 1950s that women were ready to rebel against sexual and marital norms. In 1954, readers responded with outrage when movie star Marlene Dietrich wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal that women needed to subordinate themselves to men if they wanted to be loved. “To be a complete woman,” Dietrich said, “you need a master.” She went on to say that women should wash the dishes and emerge “utterly desirable.” One woman shot back “Out here where I live, reasonably intelligent [married couples]… learn to live and work together.”
Perhaps best of all, his new compound was also able to survive absorption in the digestive tract, which meant it could be taken orally. Djerassi thought the new compound might be effective in helping young women with menstrual disorders. He didn’t know that another young chemist — Frank Colton of G.D. Searle and Co. — had also been inspired by Ehrenstein to develop virtually the same thing. And neither Djerassi nor Colton knew that Gregory Pincus was searching for exactly such a compound. “Not in our wildest dreams,” Djerassi said, “did we imagine that this substance” would one day become the active ingredient in a birth control pill.