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A man who changed women's lives has died. Thank you, kind sir.

You’ve probably never heard of this man.  But he’s arguably done more for women’s liberation than any other figure.

Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the oral contraceptive pill, a man widely considered ‘the father’ of the pill, has died aged 91.

Carl Djerassi. Photograph: Karen Ostertag

And we feel we owe him a vote of thanks.  Because this scientist didn’t just give women control of their fertility, he radically altered society.

These days we hardly think about the pill.  50-80% of women will use it at some stage of their life, and it’s become par-for-the-course. We’re prescribed it willingly by GPs, able to fill a prescription at a chemist without too much trouble, able to research it and change it and talk about it relatively openly.

Want to know what birth control was like before the pill?

Dettol.

Yep.  Our fannies were treated like a flesh wound to be dealt with.  In the 1920’s and ’30’s, advertisers advised its use after intercourse to prevent pregnancy. They also insinuated that poor female hygiene was causing marital disharmony and that we could all benefit from a good dousing of chemicals, expressly made for women’s “intimate need”.

Ouch

Some women would use oils – Olive oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, believing them to be a spermicidal ointment.  Or there’s the rhythm method, requiring women to have a forensic knowledge of their cycle and avoid sex when ovulating.

1930 onwards saw condoms increase in popularity, but for a long time women weren’t educated on their benefits.  Sex was so taboo that sales relied on secret purchases, and whispers of where they were sold.

And a lot of women simply gave up having sex at all because they didn’t want another child, and particularly if they’d had a baby late in their 30’s, or they’d had an abortion, they would simply turn off. Roll over. Suffer an endless headache.

A lifetime of headache

There’s other crazy things we hardly think about now.  Like, before the pill, 40% of women had NINE or more pregnancies. Maternal mortality rates were much, much higher, because women that got up the duff were forced to turn to illegal abortions and other drastic moves such as throwing themselves of tables and gin-baths.  Unmarried mothers were usually disowned by their families, backstreet abortionists were thriving, and orphanages were full of illegitimate children.

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Up to the 1950’s if a woman was employed in the public service, when she married she was legally required to leave her job as her responsibility was now seen to be childbearing.

READ MORE: Nothing much has changed for women since 1950. Or has it?

It was the sixties when the pill starting hitting the shelves.

‘No one expected that women would accept oral contraceptives in the manner in which they did in the Sixties.  The explosion was much faster than anyone expected.’

At it’s introduction, it was seen as massively radical, and blamed for encouraging the promiscuity of women. It was also really expensive. Contraceptives weren’t advertised or written about, (Australian newspapers wouldn’t use the word “pregnant” or “virgin” until the 1970’s) so there was only whispers about it’s existence. And many doctors refused to prescribe it to anyone but married women, and even then, only after they had finished their family.  Filling a prescription was seen as shameful, and at the chemist, women would be taken away from the counter so nobody knew what they were buying.

But as the decade progressed, and women started questioning their traditional roles, this little pill propelled them to great heights.

1969 rights protest

Having control over fertility meant sexual freedom, control over work and career, and having families that could fit into an economic situation.

CAREER WOMEN: Kickarse advice from Hillary Clinton (that you haven’t heard before).

Writer Anne Summers was at Adelaide University during the swinging sixties and wrote this brilliant piece about those early days of the pill and it’s importance in a radical societal shift.

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. If we found ourselves pregnant we knew, again from whispers, to go to the yellow pages of the Melbourne phone book in the Barr Smith Library and, under medical practitioners, look for the names that were underlined. These were the doctors who would do abortions.

The global side effects of the pill were so vast that Djerassi turned from a straightforward chemist into more of a scientist-philosopher.  He said in his book, This Man’s Pill, that the invention changed his life.

It’s changed ours too. Thank you, Carl Djerassi.

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