Centuries of weeping marked the history of my sex… until we could tuck those blister packs in our handbags: As the Pill turns 60, BEL MOONEY recalls her first nervous trip to get it – and the seismic shift in the battle of the sexes
Sex . . . What a troublesome thing it is. People have always worried about having it, not getting it, not doing it well, wanting more of it, getting tired of it, hankering after forbidden it…
Oh, and dealing with the results, as organised by the great biologist Mother Nature, who decreed that when men’s parts meet women’s parts the consequence might well be a baby.
Preventing that outcome, if not wanted, used to be tricky. Did you know that historically men used sheep intestines as sheaths? Poor lambs, poor women.
Rubber, then latex, improved matters and ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’ was the barbershop question which had boys blushing and men grinning, in anticipation of their so-called conjugal rights.
You can have all the equality legislation in the world, but unless she can control her own fertility, a woman can’t ever feel free
Meanwhile, anxious girlfriends and wives hoped they’d remember because — no doubt about it — the men were (mostly) in charge.
Until the Pill. Hallelujah! Sixty years ago, the ground-breaking oral contraceptive was first legalised in Britain, and the idea of women’s liberation became more than an aspiration. You can have all the equality legislation in the world, but unless she can control her own fertility, a woman can’t ever feel free.
In 1961, women could, if they so wished, take control. Not completely, of course, and certainly not overnight. But who needs a bloke’s French letter when your own little pack of sweeties has changed the game?
There are, of course, qualifications to the Pill’s impact on the lives of women, which I’ll come to, but still I’d never want to go back to the bad, pre-Pill days. I suspect it’s difficult for young women today to understand what it was like for my generation, before the advent of the Pill. We were always worried, even scared.
The 1960 hit by the Shirelles, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, became a poignant anthem for all women who surrendered their bodies hoping for lasting love, but suspected that they might wake up feeling used.
Believe me, I’d been there, done that — and hated myself.
But in November 1967, six years after the oral contraceptive was first prescribed — for married women only — my new boyfriend took me, all anxious and embarrassed as I was, to our Student Health Centre at University College London.
Six years after the oral contraceptive was first prescribed — for married women only — my new boyfriend took me, all anxious and embarrassed as I was, to our Student Health Centre
At the time this was seen (yes, even by one or two fellow female students I told) as rather daring. Student Health had caused some controversy among more conservative elements in college by freely prescribing the Pill.
For a young woman like me (recently turned 21, then the age of majority) it felt incredibly radical to tell a strange doctor that I was now having regular sex — as it happened, with the man I would be married to for 35 years, who gladly paid for the prescription.
In 1967, the Pill was available to all women, not just married ones — but it didn’t become free until 1974.
In Student Health, the only question they asked me was why I wanted it. ‘Because I don’t want to get pregnant’ was the obvious, only reply.
I’d already seen what that might be like. A school friend fell pregnant by her boyfriend, gave up her teacher training place to hide on her parents’ farm until the baby came, and then was made to give it up for adoption, the boyfriend having gone.
Another of our little group was made pregnant by a man who ditched her immediately. Determined to keep her child, she was ‘chucked out’ (as we said at the time) by her parents and faced lonely misery until finding refuge with a kind family.
I knew another girl who drank gin, had hot baths, and jumped down stairs to try to dislodge the unwanted foetus, before unwillingly marrying its father.
While wanted pregnancies bring joy, the unwanted pregnancy was then a frightening fate.
Before the Pill, sex was servitude to fertility. Before women were able to confidently tuck those blister packs in our handbags, centuries of weeping marked the history of my sex.
And I mean that. Wives were doomed to have baby after baby until childbirth (in so many cases) killed them. Desperate girls found themselves on the streets and abandoned their babies.
London’s Foundling Museum displays pitiful stories of unwanted babies left there with a half-token, just in case the unfortunate mother carrying the other half could one day be reunited with her illegitimate child.
Novels like Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles told of seduction and shame. A ‘fallen’ woman might end up cruelly treated in one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries.
So-called ‘shotgun’ weddings shackled men and women alike in loveless marriages.
Before the Pill, sex was servitude to fertility. Before women were able to confidently tuck those blister packs in our handbags, centuries of weeping marked the history of my sex
As for illegal terminations . . . countless tragic women died after back-street abortions, and the BBC’s much loved series, Call The Midwife, has provided insight into the terrible lottery of pregnancy and childbirth in the mid-20th century.
It took real visionaries to dare to change the centuries-old fate of women. Two brilliant Americans, Margaret Sanger (an obstetric nurse) and Katharine McCormick (a biologist), knew first-hand how women suffered and believed that family planning was essential to improving women’s lives.
McCormick had a very large personal inheritance, and mostly thanks to Sanger’s lobbying and McCormick’s money — she contributed the majority of funds for development through the 1950s — biologist Gregory Pincus was able to make the Pill a reality. What heroines.
This first birth control pill was called Enovid and was legalised in America in 1960. Britain legalised it the following year.
The drug worked by giving the body an extra boost of hormones (synthetic oestrogen and synthetic progesterone initially) to prevent ovulation. Women took the new drug, told their friends and — mostly — didn’t look back.
One of the first researchers, Professor Carl Djerassi, reminisced on Woman’s Hour in 1992: ‘We set out to produce an effective contraceptive, never dreaming so many women would take it so quickly and so soon.’ Of course they would! The Pill would open the door to freedom — and women were just waiting to dance through that doorway.
Soon after the drug was legalised in the U.S., there was a sharp increase in college attendance and graduation rates for women. The number of women who took the drug in the U.S. rose from around 400,000 in 1961 to 1.2 million only a year later.
For the first time, we could control fertility without sacrificing any education and career plans. Liberated women could thus play a greater economic role in society. And all this good news quickly spread across the Atlantic. This was the first ‘lifestyle’ drug.
The Pill revolutionised sex and the way women lived their lives. In 1971, just ten years after the Pill was introduced in the UK, 47 per cent of babies were born to women under the age of 25. By 2008, this percentage had dropped to 25 per cent. Now the average age for women to have their first baby is nearly 30.
You could argue that one downside of women being in control of their own fertility has been the temptation to put off pregnancy (perhaps for career reasons) without thinking of the consequences of delay.
You can read about fertility waning, but for many women that biological inconvenience does not become a reality until they are sitting in the IVF clinic at the age of 38, worried sick that this might not work, and some women do miss out on motherhood by leaving that phase of their lives too late.
The Pill revolutionised sex and the way women lived their lives. In 1971, just ten years after the Pill was introduced in the UK, 47 per cent of babies were born to women under the age of 25
More women now rely on interventions such as IVF to have children and bigger gaps between the generations has undoubtedly affected the way families interact.
The Pill has certainly changed social dynamics, too. Not surprising, then, that from the start the little packs of tiny ‘sweeties’ in our handbags were excoriated by religious leaders.
The fact that the medical establishment wasn’t ready, in 1961, to embrace free love is proved by their ruling that the Pill was only for respectable women with a ring on the third finger of their left hands. It wasn’t for good-time girls no better than they should be.
Men of God (and they were always men) demonstrated against this evil invention which divorced sex from procreation.
In 1968, the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae reiterated Catholic teaching that artificial contraception distorts the true purpose of sex — which is the conception of babies within marriage.
But it was too late. The revolution in social and sexual attitudes which helped define the 1960s had already begun and the moralists had not a prayer of closing the door.
There were, of course, risks to taking the Pill and some protested against it. There were heightened debates about the moral and health consequences of pre-marital sex and promiscuity.
Shortly after the Pill was launched, there were U.S. reports linking its use with blood clots, strokes, heart attacks and diabetes.
One study showed a 125 per cent increase in the risk of breast cancer for women who used hormonal contraceptives for four years or more before having a full-term pregnancy, and studies in the 1990s appeared to confirm the risk. But even after reports in the 1970s showed that smoking and the Pill together increased the risk of blood clots, women like me lit another king size, kept calm and carried on.
The number of users began to dip in the early 1980s owing to scares about its safety.
So you went to the doctor or the family planning clinic, got a diaphragm (or cap), hated the messy thing — and went back on the Pill.
The Pill remains linked to an increased risk of blood clots and breast cancer, but it is still the most popular form of birth control in the UK, with more than 3.1 million women estimated to take it.
Many women have wondered why, after all these decades, it’s still their role to ingest the hormones, which many claim makes them put on weight. Why shouldn’t men? I’ve heard it muttered darkly that of course men don’t want the bother, therefore there’s no will to develop a male pill.
Those not in stable relationships found the one-night stands as worrying as ever as they waited for their periods. But now there was a change.
It seems, though, that women still want to be in control; one survey found that 70 out of 134 women wouldn’t trust their men to remember to take it. So what price sexual liberation? I was married in my second year at university, after knowing my husband for just three months, and of course I felt safe. That visit to Student Health made me feel like an adult and blessed with a man who wanted me to study and have a career.
Not so my friends — still on the sexual roundabout. Those not in stable relationships found the one-night stands as worrying as ever as they waited for their periods. But now there was a change.
Once, a man might have thought he’d get lucky on a date so turn up with a rubber johnny tucked optimistically in his pocket. But in the heady new dawn of fun and freedom he’d protest. ‘Oh what? I thought you’d be on the Pill’ — and carry on regardless.
One side of the contraceptive coin was women supposedly being ‘in control’; the other side was men thinking they had no responsibility at all. That was free love for you; giving it away for free to men who keenly subscribed to the popular Left-wing article of faith, ‘a woman’s place is underneath’.
Some things don’t change very much, and women are still pressurised into sex. We’ve been told the one-night stand is a statement of liberation and women can ‘own’ their desires without shame.
That’s all very well, but who benefits the most? What about commitment? Nobody will ever convince me that the majority of females are satisfied having sex on demand with men who reckon ‘Get your coat, babe, you’ve pulled’ is sweet conversation.
Still, 60 years old! This merry 1960s feminist rejoices in the Pill that changed women’s lives. Women in the 1950s longed for labour-saving gadgets in the home, and let’s not ever forget the inventors of the washing machine and vacuum.
But the Pill — the little tiny tablet in its blister pack, the chemical friend which allowed you to enjoy that troublesome thing called sex — yes, the Pill was an even greater thing for women.
‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ was the slogan — and still is.
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