The Response of Feminist Discourse to the Contraceptive Pill, 1960-1980
The purpose of this article is to challenge conventional stereotypes surrounding the impact of the Pill in the 1960s and 70s. The Pill is widely renowned for its pivotal influence on the lives of women and its role as a catalyst for the legal recognition of women’s rights. However, contemporary feminist discourse serves to counter this point of view, suggesting that the Pill did more to reassert masculine control than it did to empower women.
Historians have often told the story of the Pill with optimistic sensibility. They have lauded its ability to emancipate women and break the link in the chain that had, until its invention, forever tied the financial stability of women to their husband’s earnings. As Elaine Tyler May has asserted , “the Pill made it possible for women to walk through doors that had once been closed to them.” As May’s comment infers, it is widely thought that the Pill gave women the capacity to take control over their fertility, thus allowing them to build a career of their own before having children. In theory therefore, the potential of the Pill to transform the lives of women was, undoubtedly, revolutionary.
But how far did this potential transcend into reality?
By 1970, women had been taking the Pill for almost a decade, and it was clear that it had not lived up to expectations. Hence, the Pill became victim to feminist backlash for much of the 1970s. Arguably this his was unsurprising, given that the Pill had been so closely associated with freedom for women.
One obvious reason for this backlash, which historians have not failed to appreciate, was that the Pill was initially only available to married women. Thus, the liberation and freedom it embedded made little mark on the lives of single women, who, understandably, were disheartened by this decision. However, the idea that the collective female experience with the Pill served as a catalyst for feminist backlash has often been forsaken. For the first time in history, millions of women were taking a powerful drug with little to no understanding of the possible side effects and potential risks the medication posed. Concern for the safety and wellbeing of women was, therefore, central to the feminist campaign which developed during this period.
The Rise of Female Concern: “What is in this Pill?”
The Pill, once lauded as a symbol of freedom and choice, soon faced opposition from a new generation of women who were disillusioned by its implications on their health. Against a background of outrage and anger towards the Contraceptive Pill, women began to organise themselves in support of safe birth control and education for its consumers.
Indeed, at the 1969 Women’s Liberation Conference in Boston, the movement Our Bodies, Our Selves (OBOS), was formed. Central to their campaign was the question “What is in this pill?” This critical question stemmed from the experience of Nancy Hawley, who was instrumental in sourcing the OBOS movement. After her doctor had recommended she use the Pill for birth control, she asked him “What is in this Pill?”to which he replied “Don’t you worry your pretty little head!”. To Nancy, and other first generation consumers, this was a clear indicator of the patriarchal control embedded in the Pill.
Male doctors dictated who took the Pill, what was in the Pill, and the quantity of prescription. In other words, men set themselves up as experts on women’s bodies. Hence, the OSBO motto “Women are the best experts on ourselves” was born.
OSBO aimed to educate women about themselves and reinforce ownership of their bodies. In 1970 the women behind the campaign collated their experience to produce a free pamphlet, Women and their Bodies, which covered topics ranging from female anatomy and sex, to childbirth and contraception. The pamphlet was designed to raise the consciousness of women and encourage autonomy over their bodies, as well as provide information on the risks of, contradictions surrounding, the Contraceptive Pill.
In this way, the Pill had been glorified as a watershed innovation with the potential to transform the lives of women forever, but in reality, it added another barrier which women had to overcome in order to be considered equals in a deeply patriarchal society.
Female Disillusionment: “What are our Rights?” ?”
The 1970s also saw the emergence of the National Women’s Health Network, formed by Barbara Seaman and Akin to the OSBO movement, the initiative of these women was a response to concerns about the safety of the Pill. In particular the FDA’s callous approval of the Pill and lax regulation surrounding the use of synthetic estrogens was at the forefront of discussions. These women believed that the Pill was far too often indiscriminately prescribed to women, without any consideration for their health and well-being.
As Seaman put, “What right did they have to give normal healthy women a very powerful medication to take year in and year out, that in one degree or another would kill a few of them and maim more than a few of them?”
Seaman’s book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, illuminated groundbreaking evidence that exposed the rose-tinted picture major drug companies had previously painted of the Pill, and claimed that women were not being appropriately informed in their contraceptive choices. Side effects that had been dismissed by doctors as “all in their heads”, such as depression, loss of sex drive, and infertility, were confirmed by Seaman. Worse were her findings that major manufacturers of oral contraceptives had received numerous reports of thrombosis and embolism, yet continued to promote consumption of the Pill through drug company propaganda.
Women were outraged to hear that pharmaceutical companies were exploiting their sexuality and jeopardising their health for the sake of company profits. Seaman’s research thus sparked a nationwide campaign which called for action against the indiscriminate production of the Pill. For example, the World Health Network coined slogans such as “Women’s Health, Not Drug Company Wealth” in response to Seaman’s findings. Their efforts represented the voice of women who had long become disillusioned by the Pill and wanted to reassert control over their bodies.
The discourse of female activists succeeded in giving women an informed choice about contraception. Pill manufacturers were now required to provide a patient information sheet which listed side effects and hormone levels were regulated to ensure the Pill’s safety. The efforts of feminists in the 1970s therefore proved that male leaders of pharmaceutical companies had no right to strip women of their choice.
Feminist discourse made clear that women were not “passive, narcissistic, and masochistic,” as described by medical literature, but rather, they were autonomous and capable, and they deserved the right to know what they were putting in their bodies.
Contrary to popular opinion therefore, the Pill failed to emancipate women in the 1960s and 1970s. What it did do, however, was spark a feminist revolution, as evidenced by the efforts of the Our Bodies, Our Selves campaign, and the National Woman’s Health Network. Thus, the story of the Pill is not as straight-forward as some historians have proposed; ultimately it did not immediately provide the freedom and liberation for women that it initially promised . Overall, the Pill came with many drawbacks which still need addressing and further discussion before a conclusive decision can be made on the extent to which the Pill was, and remains to be, a revolutionary invention.
Written By: Annie Finegan
Angela Phillips, “The pill, sex and women’s liberation,” Guardian, Mar 31, 2006
Boston Women’s Health Collective, Women and their Bodies (Boston: Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1970)
Elaine Tyler May, America and the pill: a history of promise, peril, and liberation (New York: Basic, 2010)
Hera Cook, The long sexual revolution: English women, sex and contraception, 1800-1975 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Joan Ditzion, Nancy Miriam Hawley, Paula Doress-Worters and Wendy Sanford, “Formative Years: The Birth of Our Bodies Ourselves,” (Conference paper, A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, University of Boston, March 27-29, 2014).
“The book that brought consumer advocacy to the medical system,” editorial, Health Facts Sept, 1919, 20.