The oral contraceptive known as “The Pill” is one of the most influential drugs in the history of the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the birth control pill in 1960, giving heterosexually active women control over preventing unwanted pregnancies. Its appearance marked a turning point in the social and economic lives of women who could now claim sexual equality and sexual independence for themselves.
Conservatives have had a long tradition of opposition to the pill and to women’s access to contraceptive education. The 1873 Comstock Act categorized birth control education as pornography, effectively making women’s access to reproductive education a crime. The Catholic Church opposed contraception as a religious principle, and many believed the pill would encourage “immoral” behavior. But, in 1971, as the age of consent was lowered from 21 to 18 years of age (a decision tied to the Vietnam War draft), the pill became accessible to even more women.
Watch: Planned Parenthood: History of the Pill: Why Birth Control Matters
The early 20th century movement to decriminalize birth control education found a champion in Margaret Sanger, who launched the reproductive rights journal, The Woman Rebel in 1914, and who opened the first birth control clinic in 1916. Early funding for birth control pill research came from a wealthy feminist from Chicago named Katherine Dexter McCormick. Sanger and McCormick encouraged biologist Gregory Pincus (1903-1967) to research and develop a hormonally-based birth control pill, which culminated in a new drug called Enovid. By the late 1950s, clinical trials on women in Haiti, Mexico, and Puerto Rico prompted concerned that the true motivation for the birth control movement was to limit poor women and women of color from reproducing. In 1957, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Enovid for “menstrual disorders,” noting the prevention of ovulation as a side effect.
With the pill’s availability women could postpone childbearing, motherhood, and marriage and pursue other opportunities such as college and professional endeavors. Within a decade of the pill becoming legal and accessible, the number of women enrolled in graduate studies in fields such as medicine, business, and law increased dramatically. For instance, in 1960 only 18.4% of all working professionals were female, by 2013 women account for 51% of workers employed as management professionals and their related occupations.
Lack of access to safe and legal abortions contributed to the rise of the birth control movement and the introduction to the pill. Abortion became legal in 1973 with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which decided a woman’s constitutional right to privacy grants women the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, if she chooses.
Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Cursaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (2015)
Elaine Tyler May, American and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (2011)