In "America and the Pill," Elaine Tyler May traces the pill's influence on women

(Jerry Mosey/associated Press)
Sunday, May 30, 2010


A History of Promise, Peril,

and Liberation

By Elaine Tyler May

Basic. 214 pp. $25.95

"I would be perfectly happy if not for the same old thing -- too many babies too close together," wrote a young mother to birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger in a letter Sanger included in her 1928 book "Motherhood in Bondage." Like many women seeking Sanger's advice about contraception, this mother was probably poor, uneducated and, by her own admission, desperate. One pictures her at her kitchen table, pen in hand, a child in each arm and on a knee. "My third baby was born a week after the first one's third birthday," she went on. "Just three babies in three years and I am only twenty-two years old. . . . I am also so nervous sometimes I don't know what to do."

Sanger is one of the heroes of "America and the Pill," a new cultural history of the birth control pill written by Elaine Tyler May, a professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota. Throughout her long career as a nurse and activist, Sanger was a tireless advocate for an oral contraceptive, calling as early as 1912 for a "magic pill." By the time this dream was realized in 1960, six years before Sanger's death, other contraceptives were widely available, but the pill stood out for three main reasons: First, it was the only form of contraception that was not directly linked to the act of sex (that is, no coitus interruptus necessary). Second, it was nearly 100 percent effective. Third, and most important for Sanger, women controlled it. Unlike with condoms or the rhythm method, men's cooperation didn't matter at all. They didn't even have to know.

Despite these benefits, from its inception the pill was shrouded in controversy and in some senses doomed to fail. May argues succinctly -- at just over 200 pages, the book is as compact and powerful as the pill itself -- that expectations for it were too high. "When the oral contraceptive arrived on the market, its champions claimed that the tiny pill promised to end human misery and eradicate the causes of war by controlling population." This ambition led to the messy business of separating humanitarians who were truly concerned about world poverty from politicians and corporations (and, shamefully, Sanger herself to an extent) who wanted to use eugenics to weed out "undesirables." Smaller, wealthier families were considered a plus for the Cold War fight against communism as they bolstered capitalism by buying more consumer goods. The pill was further promoted as a key ingredient to happy, nuclear families, and women were expected to use it despite many concerns about negative side effects.

May devotes many pages to delineating the moral and physical risks posed by the pill, and rightfully so. But there are lots of reasons to celebrate the pill, and she is at her best when allowing herself to do that. She gives a wonderful account of Sanger's advocacy and of Katharine McCormick, a women's rights activist who bankrolled the pill's development. Likewise, she skillfully shows how women fought for access to the pill, as well as for a safer pill, against some pretty big contenders, pharmaceutical companies and the Catholic Church among them.

May stops short of arguing that the pill triggered the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, but she does rightly claim that it was a very useful tool for women's rights advocates, who saw the ability to control one's fertility as essential to securing educational and economic opportunities. The pill may not have cured world poverty or unhappy marriages, but it's safe to say that -- on the 50th anniversary of its approval by the FDA -- it has been a great boon to women. The ability to organize key events in their lives is now a right most women hold dear -- 82 percent of American women have used the pill, making it the nation's most popular form of birth control. As May shows, they frequently do this despite opposition from familial, political and religious sources, suggesting that authority over their own bodies is something women from all backgrounds can agree on.

Ashley Sayeau writes regularly on women, politics and culture for the Guardian and other publications.

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