It’s difficult to know how to celebrate 50 years of the pill, whose birthday it is today. Sex would seem an appropriate mode of celebration but if that’s not possible, I’m going to suggest cake. That always works for me.
When the pill was first released in 1960 (Australia was the 2nd country after the USA to introduce it to a very excited population), it was a difficult sell. The words “pregnant” and “virgin” (let alone sex!) were not used in the media. Advertising contraception was illegal, as was writing about it. Sex education did not exist. Nor did Family Planning clinics.
There wasn’t even a Facebook group for The Pill.
And it wasn’t until the 70s that it was prescribed for single women. Until then, Doctors would only give it to married women. There was major resistance to seperating sex from reproduction. And it was EXPENSIVE, since it had a hefty ‘luxury’ tax heaped on it. All this changed in 1972 when Gough Whitlam got rid of luxury tax and put the pill on national health scheme. He also removed ban on advertising contraception and poured money into family planning and sex education in schools.
Once women could decide when and if they were going to have babies, it freed them. Suddenly the pill allowed women to be in charge of not just their bodies but their lives.
Mamamia reader and top knowledge contributor Julie Cowdroy dug a little deeper into the pill and what it’s meant for all of us:
Yasmine was my best friend. Diane was Tanya’s*. Brenda was Sally’s*. “Diane helps me with my skin.” “Well, Brenda ensures I don’t put on too much weight, like the others.” “Yasmine is the least moody and eases the pain I used to get,” I chimed in.
Diane. Brenda. Yasmine. The girls. We had met them, and they had become a massive part of our lives. And they were integral to our freedom.
Who were these amazing gal pals? Not girl scout leaders, let me tell you. Nope, unlike conventional friends, we need to renew these special friendships with a note from the doc and a trip to the chemist every few months. Yep, Yasmine, Diane and Brenda are all forms of the contraceptive pill. Carefully matched to our hormonal make-up to ensure that we could cruise through each month without the worry of falling pregnant. I still remember how my girlfriends referred to each other by the name of our Pill. (Except Sam* – she used a generic brand. That’s boring).
I remember when I went on the Pill. Walking into a clean doctor’s surgery in the City while my girlfriends waited outside. I was nervous, but a kind doctor calmly talked me through how it worked without batting an eyelid. I asked about side effects I had heard about. He answered my questions. Within minutes, I was walking out, script in hand surprised at how dignified, respected and free I felt. There were no inhibitions, no shame. This is the world I lived in.
A very different world to Anne Summers. She writes of her experience in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“It was 1966, I was a student at Adelaide University, with a boyfriend, and I decided it was time to try the new contraceptive. But the doctor at the student health service wasn’t having any of it: ”Are you married?” he asked sternly. He apparently didn’t realise that these were the swinging sixties. I slunk away, embarrassed. It took a few months before someone gave me the name of a doctor off campus who was willing to prescribe the pill to single girls.
In those days before family planning clinics or women’s health services, before telephone help lines or listings in the front of the phone book, before there were books about sex, before there was any information really, we relied on rumour. The word would go round, and we’d flock to the medico who we’d heard would not give us a hard time for daring to ask for a script.”
Two very different stories that highlight how much has changed for women. In 2010, I, like most women, view the Pill as a birth control option, just as condoms, vasectomies, diaphragms, coils, IUDs and implants are all birth control options. See how I say those words so freely: “Birth control”. I certainly wouldn’t have done that one hundred years ago. In fact, the term “birth control” landed an American nurse in jail for mentioning such an “obscene” notion. You can read more about that along with a comprehensive overview of the birth (‘scuse the pun) of the Pill in this article by Time. (I recommend taking some time to read the article in it’s entirety. It’s six pages, so grab a cuppa.)
So how did we get to a place where the sheer mention of birth control was off limits, to freely scheduling an appointment with the medical centre to grab a new script for this little round tablet? Not without its battles.
It took tiresome years of lobbying from women’s groups along with liberal policy makers to work together to make the idea of the Pill acceptable. This revolution has seen the transformation of women’s role in society. Once upon a time, a woman’s main function was pretty much limited to rearing children, but now women have become contributors in so many other ways. The rise in the number of women who now study and work can be directly attributed to the widespread use of the Pill. And while the Pill may not be the best form of contraception for everyone, it’s approval in 1960 and the gradual acceptance of it over time has revolutionised the world forever. A woman now has the choice to exercise autonomy over her body using birth control, whatever form she prefers. Family planning is becoming a widely accepted cultural norm. What a massive shift.
Elaine Tyler May of the New York Times writes:
Indeed, the minute the Food and Drug Administration announced [the Pill] would be approved, millions of women rushed to their doctors for prescriptions. They would use the pill to gain control of not only their fertility, but also their lives. They could decide whether to have children, and when. They could take advantage of new opportunities for education, work and participation in public life that opened up in the years following the pill’s approval.
Today, women no longer need to choose between having a family and a career. At the pill’s 50th anniversary, that alone is well worth celebrating.
So let’s raise a toast to the Pill. Conceived in controversy that often still surrounds it, and in some places it is still shrouded with misinformation. But to the women who have experienced it’s full benefits, it is oh so appreciated. The power of the Pill to transform women’s lives, and indeed society, is irrefutable.
- 200 million women have used the Pill since it was first approved in 1960 and 100 million women around the world currently use the Pill today
- The Pill is 92% effective
- Australia was the second country to make the Pill available on 2 January, 1961
- It was Gough Whitlam who abolished the 27.5% luxury tax on all contraceptives and put the pill on the National Health Scheme list, making it more affordable for women. He removed the ban on advertising contraceptives in the ACT and allocated money into family planning, sex education as well as international birth control programs.
- 48% of unintended pregnancies involve contraceptive failures; 52% of these cases involve couples that used no birth control at all
- In some states in the US, “conscience clauses” allow pharmacists to legally refuse to fill a script for the Pill if they have personal moral reservations
- 86% of young women in the US say it is important to avoid pregnancy yet 63% say don’t know enough about birth control pills
- US magazine Ladies’ Home Journal says: “Nothing else in this country – perhaps not even winning the right to vote – made such an immediate difference in women’s lives.”
To celebrate 50 years of the pill, Bayer Schering Pharma (with whom I’ve been doing some work to promote 50 years of the pill – however this is not a sponsored post) have created a campaign called Dreams For Our Daughters. By visiting their Facebook page here, you can take a quick look at 4 different ‘dreams’ for the future of women and vote for the charity whose dream you share. Every vote/click means $1 will go to that charity. So THAT’S how I’m going to be celebrating 50 years of the pill.
The four charities involved are: Landcare Australia, International Women’s Development Agency, White Ribbon and Mission Australia.
Today, about 1/3 sexually active OZ women take the pill.
Over their lifetime, 80% have taken it at some stage.
Have you? What’s been your experience? And what invention do YOU think has been the greatest emancipator of women?
[PS - A Current Affair are looking for three generations of women in the same family who have been on the pill to appear in a short interview to talk about it. If that sounds like you, contact Lisa: email@example.com]