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The Pill | Article

The Pill and the Women's Liberation Movement

Women's Libration March, Washington, D.C. 1970. Library of Congress

In the decade after the Pill was released, the oral contraceptive gave women highly effective control over their fertility. By 1960, the baby boom was taking its toll. Mothers who had four children by the time they were 25 still faced another 15 to 20 fertile years ahead of them. Growing families were hemmed into small houses, cramped by rising costs. "By the end of the fifties, the United States birthrate was overtaking India's," Betty Friedan would write in The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Both men and women were beginning to ask, "Is this all there is?"

An Era of Change
As the 1960s progressed, the women's liberation movement gained momentum alongside the civil rights and anti-war movements. It was a time of tremendous change, especially for women. Though popular culture had glorified the image of the happy homemaker, in reality, vast numbers of American women worked outside the home. The female employment rate had dipped after World War II, but by 1954 more women were in the workforce than during the height of the war. Most women worked at low paying jobs as teachers, nurses, waitresses, secretaries or factory workers. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment and educational discrimination, helped make it possible for women to go into professional fields, the Pill also played a significant role. With almost 100% fertility control, women were able to postpone having children or space births to pursue a career or a degree that had never been possible prior to the Pill.

Freedom for Women
A generation earlier, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the "mothers" of the Pill, had insisted that female control of contraception was nothing less than a precondition of the emancipation of women. Since women disproportionately bore the burden of pregnancy and child rearing, they believed women should have a contraceptive they alone controlled. To achieve their goal, they enlisted the help of scientists and physicians. In creating the Pill, the two elderly activists ushered in what one historian called "the contraceptive mentality" — the belief in the right of a woman to control her own fertility.

Backlash Against the Pill
After a decade on the market, the wonder drug that had been lauded by women as "liberating" and "revolutionary" came under attack by feminists. Senate hearings in 1970 brought the health risks of the Pill to the attention of the nation. Many women were furious. Feminists now saw the Pill as yet another example of patriarchal control over women's lives. Women's disillusionment with the Pill fed into the new feminist critique of American society. Women started asking questions such as: Why should birth control be a female responsibility? Why do men control the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry? Do women's health interests suffer as a result? For a growing number of women, the Pill was proof positive that the personal was political.

Ongoing Issues
The Pill controversy galvanized feminists to organize and protest the status quo in science and medicine. As women stood up, spoke out and refused to be passive participants in their health care, they achieved lasting changes in the American health care system. Yet questions surrounding the Pill remain unresolved as feminists and women's health care advocates debate who should control pregnancy prevention.

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