In May 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of the contraceptive pill, a drug that would arguably have a greater impact on American culture than any other in the nation's history. Within five years, more than six million American women would make it part of their daily lives. The change was remarkable. Just a decade earlier, the concept of a pill that women could take like aspirin to prevent conception seemed preposterous. Laws that criminalized the sale of contraceptive devices were still on the books in thirty states around the country, and most of the medical and scientific community were leery of getting involved in the development of new forms of birth control.
Produced and directed by Chana Gazit (Fatal Flood, Surviving the Dust Bowl), The Pill reveals the forgotten story of how two elderly and defiant women activists forced the issue. Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick engaged Gregory Pincus -- a brilliant but discredited biologist -- to do the research, and then paid his bills. He persuaded a pharmaceutical company to risk a possible boycott to bring the pill to market and enlisted the help of a highly respected Catholic gynecologist, John Rock, to do the field studies.
The strongest voice against the pill was the Catholic church. Rock, who believed a robust sex life made for a good marriage, became one of the Pill's strongest advocates. He launched a vigorous public relations campaign in an effort to persuade his church that the Pill mimicked a woman's natural cycle and, therefore, did not violate the church's teachings against birth control. The Pill team expected a backlash as soon as the drug hit the market. However, there was little protest. Instead, millions of women swarmed to their doctors to get a prescription.
As the film shows, the protagonists were not without failings. Following standard practices, Rock and Pincus tested the pill on women in Puerto Rico without telling them about possible side effects. They also dismissed complaints of nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain and vomiting as inconsequential. After the pill was brought to market, they would learn that the early high-dose pill resulted in serious, sometimes deadly, reactions in a small percentage of women. Concern over the pill's safety would prompt dramatic and contentious hearings on Capitol Hill.
But despite the controversy swirling around the Pill, millions of American women found it tremendously liberating: it allowed them to pursue careers as never before, it fueled the woman's movement and it encouraged more open attitudes about sex.
In some of the freshest and most revealing sequences of the film, the first generation of pill users describe the prevailing sexual attitudes of the 1950s and talk frankly about being terrified at the prospect of having one baby after another for the duration of their fertile lives. These women, now in their sixties and seventies, explain the enormous impact the Pill had on their lives. It is through these personal stories that the film reveals how two elderly women, a scientist, and a physician unleashed a social revolution.