Five Myths About the Pill

Laura Johansen

Fifty years ago this spring, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved a medication that would have a profound impact on women's lives. In fact, this particular medication quickly became known simply as the pill, as if there were no others that mattered. The final approval for the first birth-control pill came on May 9, 1960, which was certainly a historic day, but it would be more than another decade before women all over the country had access to oral contraception.

On the day that the pill was approved, 30 states still had laws restricting the advertising and sale of contraceptives, and Massachusetts and Connecticut banned them outright, says Elaine Tyler May, author of the new book America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. The battle to extend reproductive rights to all women went all the way to the Supreme Court twice—in 1965 one decision invalidated the Connecticut ban and permitted married couples in the U.S. to make their own decisions about contraception, and seven years later, in a separate case, unmarried people were granted that same right.

In the years since then, the pill has become an integral part of the culture, and getting a first prescription is a rite of passage for many young women. About 12 million women in this country take it every day (the estimate worldwide is 100 million). But despite its widespread use, the historical impact of the pill is still largely misunderstood, says May, a historian at the University of Minnesota. In her book, she debunks a number of myths about the pill. Here are five of them:

Myth No. 1: The pill started the sexual revolution.
"Technology in itself is very unlikely to change the way people think about something," May says, and that was true of the pill. Sexual attitudes slowly began changing long before the pill was approved, particularly during World War II. In the postwar years there was some pressure—especially from college students—to push back against what was then quaintly termed "the double standard": the social expectation that women would be chaste when they married, while men were free to play around. But little changed throughout much of the 1960s. Many women who entered college in that decade still professed a desire to graduate with their "Mrs." degree. "By the end of the 1960s," May says, "the majority of college graduates were still virgins. That really hadn't changed even though college campuses were one of the places where the sexual revolution was most visible in terms of the public discussion about sex." May says it was the modern feminist movement, not the pill, that really ramped things up, and ideas about women's liberation didn't become widespread until the early 1970s. That was the era of "consciousness raising," when, May says, women really began "to think more fully about controlling their own sexuality and their own bodies."

Myth No. 2: The pill is a women's issue.
A little reminder about reproductive biology: there's another vital player in this game, and in the beginning, it was men who felt the most liberated, May says. "They no longer had to worry about whether they impregnated a woman," she says. "It lifted the burden of responsibility from them." But other men felt threatened because they could never be sure that their partner was using the pill properly. Although the pill is extremely effective when taken as indicated, a very small percentage of women who take it become pregnant when they don't use it daily as prescribed. "Some men were very distrustful," May says, a situation that is pretty much the same today. The pill did give women control over their fertility, but it also led to a profound change in the battle of the sexes, and it certainly reset men's notions of how their masculinity was tied to their virility.

Myth No. 3: The pill was an immediate boon to single women.
"A lot of hurdles faced young single women who might have benefited from the pill, and as a result, very few actually used it," May says. In 1960 many doctors, even those in states where the pill was legal, would not prescribe it to unmarried women. But doctors' attitudes weren't the only barrier. Women themselves were often deeply embarrassed to ask for it, May says. Asking for it meant that they were actually planning to have sex, which was still a social taboo. "There was so much pressure on young women not to have sex that to appear to plan it, as opposed to just being swept off your feet in the heat of the moment, was also something that inhibited young women," May says. In the early years, young women on the pill were usually already engaged, or at least pretending to be engaged in order to legitimize their request, May says. They also had to have the money to pay for it, which made it out of reach for most low-income women.

Myth No. 4: Male doctors were responsible for the development of the pill.
It is certainly true that very few women were doctors and scientists during the years when the pill was developed, but May says it was two women who were most responsible for making contraception available for women. Activist Margaret Sanger, who coined the term "birth control" in 1915, and philanthropist Katherine McCormick, who funded much of the research, were actually the driving forces, May says. The two first met in Boston in 1917 and soon became friends, she says. Sanger, from a working-class family, was a feminist and a socialist; McCormick, the second woman to graduate from MIT, was born wealthy and married the son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper and founder of International Harvester. McCormick's husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which led her to become involved in health-care research. During the 1950s neither pharmaceutical companies nor the government would fund contraceptive research. (In her book, May quotes a 1959 explanation from then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which he proclaims that such research is "emphatically…not a proper political or government activity or function or responsibility.") Sanger, who trained as a nurse, and McCormick, whose MIT degree was in biology, found the researchers who would eventually develop the pill. McCormick personally funded the work, contributing about $2 million over a period of years, May says, and she and Sanger carefully watched over the progress of the research.

Myth No. 5: The pill provided the single biggest boost to women's health and well being in the 20th century.
At least two other major developments transformed women's lives to an even greater degree: a dramatic decline in maternal mortality because of better access to good prenatal care, and greater educational and employment opportunities. May credits the feminist movement for all of these changes. "Without that," she says, "there would not have been pressure to improve the lives and the health care of mothers and all women, there would not have been the opportunities for education that women's rights advocates insisted on."

May's history makes clear that the pill was not developed in a vacuum; it was an innovation whose moment came just as women's lives were being transformed on many levels. Even 50 years later, we're still debating the consequences.