America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation

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Elaine Tyler May
214 pages | Buy This Book

In America and the Pill, May delivers a half-century history of the oral contraceptive with a curious caveat: the hugely successful form of birth control hasn’t had exactly the impact on the culture that everyone commonly assumes.

 



What’s the Big Deal?

The pill has turned 50! Unlike condoms or diaphragms, oral contraceptives were the first mainstream form of birth control that empowered women to control their reproductive systems without the consultation, cooperation, or even knowledge of men. Their development in 1960 sparked advancements for women in the workplace, in relationships, and in modern society. The pill revolutionized the way men and women talk with each other about sex and relationships. And it spawned a long-lasting and lucrative arm of the pharmaceutical industry. But the fact of the matter, and May drives the point home, is that the pill didn’t do all this in a vacuum. Deep social changes were already underway by the time the pill emerged, and even considering all its accomplishments, the pill was not a game changer.

Buzz Rating: Rumble/Roar

Thanks to the pill’s 50th birthday, everyone is talking about oral contraceptives and May’s book. Time magazine devoted a recent cover to the 50th anniversary of the pill, drawing on May’s expertise. She sat on a panel with Gloria Steinem and Hilary Swank, and she has penned essays for The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One-Breath Author Bio

May is a regents professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota. She has been referred to as having a “fascination with domesticity” and has written about the impact Tupperware has had on women’s lives and how domesticity evolved during the Cold War.

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. The pill didn’t really kick-start the sexual revolution. Conventional wisdom has long dictated that as soon as the pill came along, women cast off social restrictions and started having casual sex. Not so fast, Summer of Love. By 1960, sexual attitudes were already shifting, actually. Rates of premarital sex had been on the rise since the 1920s and, May explains, “there’s no evidence that the pill’s arrival in 1960 had any immediate impact on those trends” (page 75). It may have made life easier for sexually active women but, she writes, convenience didn’t suddenly rush untold numbers of abstaining women into the bedroom.

2. Ship it abroad, just don’t swallow it here. During its development, politicians championed the pill’s use abroad while they chafed at its introduction in the U.S. For many (male) politicians—including Lyndon Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower—the pill could serve as an antidote to overpopulation, especially in developing countries. Cold-hearted cold warriors, May says, “worried that overpopulated poor countries would be drawn to communism” or be too financially drained by large families to buy American-made consumer goods (page 41). A swallow a day, so the thinking went, could combat those big-picture geopolitical worries. In the end, mainly due to a lack of doctors to distribute the drugs, it ultimately proved impotent as foreign policy.

3.
During the early days of the pill, with politicians raging about the “welfare state” and the scientific community’s lingering interest in eugenics, racial tensions were already high. Accordingly, African-American organizations were skeptical of the pill. Many worried that hostile whites were foisting the drug on them as a means of “population control” too. May sees it as anything but paranoia: some women were “justifiably dubious of the motives of family planning advocates. Black women in particular had reasons to be disgruntled after centuries of manipulation of their fertility, beginning with slave breeding” (page 47). And yet, despite their suspicions, many black women, like white women, were eager to take advantage of any contraceptive services available to them.

4. Men fell into two camps. Some, like Hugh Hefner, saw the pill as the “key to sexual liberation and pleasure, especially for men” (page 6). Others, like the Beat poets, feared the pill as a threat to their virility. Male opponents (and women’s magazine Redbook, strangely) equated masculinity with the ability to get women pregnant or, in a metaphorical sense, to conquer them. Some psychologists at the time argued that male sexual arousal demanded such sensations. The pill, of course, squashed that.

Zeitgeist Check

Despite being 50, the pill is still a source of constant conversation. There’s new research and regular debate on how the pill affects women’s health, mood, and libidos. Planned Parenthood just released a poll that says eight out of 10 women think the pill is essential health care, which could make a difference in coverage as the new health-care legislation goes into effect. Meanwhile, the topic of population control is back in the news. Both Mother Jones and Miller-McCune had recent articles on the benefits of birth control on global security and quality of life.

Swipe This Critique

The entire point of May’s book is that the pill, while a huge advancement in medicine and a fantastic asset for women across the world, doesn’t have as much significance as we so commonly assume. That’s a big argument to make, especially in a book that’s so short. For example, she writes that during the baby boom, housewives felt conflicted about their new freedoms and “tended to emphasize the pill’s promise of family planning and marital happiness, keeping the liberating potential of contraception under the radar” (58). That tension felt by women, the confusing messages about sexuality the pill could present, and the voices of those who tried to negotiate this new normal are missing. May provides a great macro view of the pill’s impact, but in this case, the individual stories and voices of women affected by the drug might have been more meaningful, and the book feels empty without them.

Tic Alert

May overexplains. Take the entire page she uses to, um, describe the makeup of Playboy magazine. In other chapters, she sets up quotes with a lengthy explanation, then follows up with a recap, often rehashing all the same points. That strategy might succeed with a classroom full of half-asleep sophomores, but it’s irksome on the page.

Gradebook


Prose: B It’s almost too easy to read. Straightforward is great, but sophistication counts, too.

 

Construction: The book is broken up by theme, not chronology. Each chapter makes for a great primer, but broad shifts are hard to see.

 

Miscellaneous: This book is excellently sourced, and readers who need more can find a plethora of valuable other sources catalogued in the back.