The Pill gives way to the pills

Birth control revolution didn’t change sex much but had profound effect on women’s work lives

May 03, 2010|By Susan Reimer

The Pill turns 50 this month, and I swear I am feeling every one of those years.

For me, that little disc of pink and white birth control pills has morphed into one of those day-of-the-week pill storage containers that's filled with all sorts of medicines, none of which holds the promise of a wild night of sex.

The Pill is now "the pills," and they hold out hope of less joint pain and less risk of clogged arteries and dying of a sudden heart attack or stroke.


All these years later, the same Pill that kept me from getting pregnant in college was prescribed to moderate my hot flashes.

And the Pill that caused a family explosion during my freshman summer of college — when my mom found the disc under my mattress — caused a different kind of generational conflict when I insisted that my daughter make an appointment with her pediatric nurse practitioner for a reality check.

Yep. Fifty years of the Pill and much has changed for all of us, but not in the way they predicted in 1960.

The Pill didn't trigger profligate sex among young people in the '60s and '70s. Research showed we were already having it — and we'd been having it since the '50s. Women had been scheming to prevent the consequences of sex — pregnancy — since ancient Egypt. The Pill was just a more effective way to do that.

It didn't stabilize marriages that might be stressed by too many children or sexual tension. Divorce has only increased since 1960, impacting almost half of all marriages. The Pill didn't stabilize populations in developing countries or control disease, famine and political unrest. The women in those countries couldn't get the Pill.

And it didn't prevent unwed pregnancies, either. Those numbers have nearly tripled.

It turns out that the Pill's biggest impact may not have been on sex at all. Its biggest impact was on the number of women working. Now women could confidently prevent pregnancy while they were getting their educations and plan children around a job or a career.

That was the revolution that scientists, preachers, politicians and sociologists didn't see coming back in 1960, and it has made the most difference in the lives of women, their families, this country and its economy. It turns out that another "p" word is what mattered most: paycheck.

It is safe to say that post-boomer women take the Pill for granted. It is as much a part of their growing up as a driver's license, a diploma or that first apartment.

They didn't live in a time when it was illegal in some states to prescribe the Pill to an unmarried woman — of any age! Something that didn't change for more than a decade after the Pill was approved by the FDA.

They don't remember, as we do, the word-of-mouth recommendations for a cooperative physician who perhaps only seemed to be sinister and whose office only seemed to be located in a dark alley.

When I think about those days, I get angry all over again.

But for the moment at least, it takes my mind off the soreness in my joints.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. E-mail:

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