The pill: Making motherhood better for 50 years

It sparked protests and controversy, and is credited with spurring the women's liberation movement. Now, the contraceptive method known as 'The pill' is turning 50.
By Elaine Tyler May
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Forget the single girl and the sexual revolution. The pill was not anti-mother; it was for mothers. And it changed motherhood more than it changed anything else. Its great accomplishment was not in preventing motherhood, but in making it better by allowing women to have children on their own terms.

Today, we celebrate both motherhood and the pill. It is Mother's Day, and it is the 50th anniversary of the day the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would approve the pill -- though the dream of an oral contraceptive is much older. The birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger first envisioned such a "magic pill" in 1912, two years before Congress established a national Mother's Day. She wanted to do more than honor mothers: She wanted to change their lives.

While in her 30s, Sanger worked as a nurse in New York City, and she saw many poor mothers become sick and die from the strain of frequent pregnancies. A turning point, she would recall later, came when she heard a physician instruct Sadie Sachs, a frail 28-year-old mother of three who was desperate for contraception, to "tell Jake to sleep on the roof!" Sachs's death from a self-induced abortion inspired Sanger to begin her crusade for birth control.

The sixth of 11 children born to Irish Catholic parents, Sanger was also motivated by her mother's death at the age of 50, which she blamed on her 18 pregnancies and her lack of access to contraceptives. Although women in the 19th century, when Sanger was born, practiced contraception through various means -- sponges, pessaries and coitus interruptus among them -- none were particularly effective. As a result, even young middle-class women who were eager to get engaged found creative ways to postpone their weddings -- sisters who needed help with children, mothers who needed help with housework. These young women knew that as soon as they married, babies would start coming, and with them, the loss of their independence and the likely weakening of their health.

To some extent, these methods and strategies worked. In 1800, American women had an average of seven children. By 1900, that number had declined by half, thanks to a combination of late marriage or no marriage, sexual restraint, contraceptive devices, and abortion. Nevertheless, for women with ambitions for higher education or a career, the only sure way to avoid being tied down by a continuous stream of babies was to refrain from marriage. And many did. Until recently, the highest rate of childlessness on record in the United States -- 20 percent -- was among women born in the first decade of the 20th century.

Against this backdrop, Sanger must have realized that the only way to keep women from having to make such choices was effective birth control. It was she who coined that term, in 1914, and who went on to open the network of family-planning clinics that would one day be known as Planned Parenthood. And it was she who, decades later, collaborated with her good friend, the feminist and philanthropist Katharine McCormick, to organize and fund the medical research that would bring the pill to fruition.

When the pill hit the market in 1960, at the peak of the baby boom, it was overwhelmingly mothers who rushed to get it. There may have been hand-wringing in some quarters -- and celebrating in others -- about a "sexual revolution," but the pill had very little to do with it. Single women had a difficult time getting prescriptions, and as late as the 1970s, most sexually active unmarried couples used contraceptives rarely or not at all. Of the 6.5 million women who used the pill by 1964, the vast majority were married.

The number of births per woman in the United States proceeded to plummet by more than half, from 3.65 in 1960 to 1.77 in 1975. The pill was not the sole cause of that decline, but it certainly contributed to it. It let women avoid the interruptions and hassles of barrier methods, and put contraception totally in their control. A woman on the pill did not need her partner's cooperation; he didn't even have to know. And if used properly, it was nearly 100 percent effective. Suddenly, it was possible for women to plan for children, to limit their number and to space them according to their own aspirations -- all to a degree that earlier forms of contraception hadn't been able to deliver.

The pill, quite simply, liberated mothers, and popular culture expressed their jubilation. Contemporary celebrations of the pill, such as Pete Seeger's ballad "The Pill," looked on it not as a boost to the sexual revolution but as a boon to mothers. When, in 1966, it appeared that the Catholic Church was on the verge of approving contraception, Seeger sang the story of a Catholic mother with a house full of children, waiting for the pope to "bless the pill . . . before my man comes in." (Although the Catholic Church reaffirmed its opposition to contraception in 1968, that decree did not stop Catholic women from taking the pill at the same rate as non-Catholics.)

Country singer Loretta Lynn's 1975 ode to the pill also focused on how it had liberated mothers, improving their opportunities not just outside the house but also in the bedroom. Long burdened by a new baby every year, a woman sings to her husband that she's tired of staying home with the children while he has all the fun. Thanks to the pill, she sings, she's giving up her maternity clothes for miniskirts, hot pants and good times. She also promises him sexual bliss, because without the fear of pregnancy, "the feelin' good comes easy now." She reassures him, "Oh Daddy don't you worry none 'cause Mama's got the pill."

At first glance, it seems as though Margaret Sanger's dream that the pill would empower and emancipate mothers came true. Today, 80 percent of women of childbearing age have taken the pill at some point, to say nothing of the other forms of hormonal birth control that followed it onto the market. And, thanks in large part to birth control, women have been able to time motherhood so that it is compatible with a career. In 1950, less than 20 percent of women with children under 18 were in the paid labor force. But after the pill arrived, these women became the fastest growing part of that labor force. By 1975, mothers of children under 18 were employed at a higher rate than any other group of women, and by the end of the century, more than 70 percent of them had jobs.

But there is a bitter irony in the fact that the same pill that gave mothers the ability to combine childbearing and a career by controlling fertility has also led many women to delay childbearing so long that they jeopardize that fertility. Contraception makes it possible to postpone motherhood, but it doesn't solve the problem of how to combine caring for children with going to work. As a result, many women wait to have a child until they are financially secure enough to afford child care.

In some sense, the pill let employers and the government off the hook by giving women the means to juggle jobs and families. Sanger and Katharine McCormick hoped that the pill would allow women to control their lives, but they did not count on women being stuck with such hard choices. For while mothers' lives have changed over the past 50 years, the work world has lagged behind: Most jobs are still 9 to 5 -- or longer -- leaving little time to care for children. The cost of child care is, for many women, ruinously high. Paid parental leave is still too rare, and where it exists, usually too brief. For the most part, it is women who, aided by the pill, have adjusted to the demands of the workforce, rather than the other way around.

The pill may have been a gift to mothers. But 50 years on, it could use some new accessories. This Mother's Day, instead of jewelry, candy or flowers, how about some more novel presents: lengthy paid parental leaves, government-supported child care and flex-time.

Elaine Tyler May is a professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota and the author, most recently, of "America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation."

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