The impact of The Pill was even more radical. It meant sex need not lead to pregnancy. But it wasn’t just another form of contraception, it was an equalizer, a liberator, and easy to take. For the first time in human history, a woman could control her sexuality and determine her readiness for reproduction by swallowing a pill smaller than an aspirin. Critics warned that The Pill would spawn generations of loose, immoral women; what it spawned was generations of empowered women who are better equipped to make rational choices about their lives.
The birth control pill turns 50 today. Man, I had NO idea that I was a mere three weeks older than the Pill. Would that I could have had even half the impact on our social landscape that this tiny little pill has. As I look back over my life, I can’t think of anything that has more thoroughly and completely changed our social landscape than the birth control pill. Coming out of the 1950s, sex as a matter of course led to marriage, which ipso facto led to babies. Women who didn’t want to follow the script were considered outside the pale- loose,immoral, and libertine, qualities considered most definitely unladylike. An unwanted pregnancy was punitive, the logical and correct result of a woman demonstrating herself incapable of controlling her physical urges (never mind that there was generally a man involved in the process). At the time, sex was still viewed as functional (reproduction), the idea of recreational sex being seen as sinful, decadent, and again, most definitely unladylike. “Good girls” didn’t. They waited for Mr. Right, got married, and then procreated.
No one asked, over ever really cared, whether a woman was sexually fulfilled. Women were viewed as vessels for carrying and ultimately giving birth to children. Fulfillment, satisfaction, and choice? Well, ladies didn’t worry themselves about “unimportant” things like that, not when their were children to be raised. Their job was to hold their family together by taking care of their children and their husband. Their needs of necessity came in a distant third. The birth control helped to break that cycle, giving women options. At the time, the idea of allowing women a greater measure of control over their lives and bodies was not universally well-received. The dominant (male) power structure was, to put it mildly, threatened…but once the genie was out of the bottle, there was simply no way to stuff it back in.
Suddenly, the FDA presented American women with something they’d never had before- control. Women could decide when, how, and/or even if they were at a place in their lives where getting pregnant and starting a family made sense. Suddenly, women had a measure of control over their bodies. Sure, Roe v. Wade was 13 years down the road, but the door had cracked a bit. Things didn’t change overnight, of course; men were loathe to quickly and easily give up their dominance of and control over women’s sexuality, but slowly women began to recognize that they could make their own decisions. They could control their own bodies; they weren’t merely incubators to perpetuate the legacy of men. They now had a choice…and much of the social history of the past 50 years can and should be considered to have begun with the Pill.
Fifty years later, we tend to take women’s equality somewhat for granted. I doubt most women could even tell you much about how things evolved to where they are today. Women grow up expecting for the most part to be able to choose how they’ll live their lives. Some, perhaps most, will choose to become a wife and mother; the wonderful thing about this is that it’s a choice they can make for themselves when and if it feels right. It’s not the one and only career path open to them. Women can be more than a vessel for the carrying and delivery of children, or it can be enough for them. It’s their choice. Odd to think that one little pill got the genie out of the bottle, but sometimes revolutions start on very small levels.
Happy Mothers Day!!