(WOMENSENEWS)–On screen, Anita Fream, a woman who appears to be in her early 50s, narrows her eyes and broadens her shoulders as she confesses, "for the first time in my life I could think about sex as just sex." Watching the screen, eight young men and women in their early 20s and late teens laugh at the revelation. For the crowd in a New York University dorm room, sex more often than not is just sex for them.
Prior to the screening, the group admitted they collectively knew little more about the pill than the general effects it had on a woman’s hormones. No one knew what year the pill received approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration. One of them, a young man age 19, incorrectly named Margaret Sanger as the pill’s inventor.
He was set straight by the film. "The Pill," produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Chana Gazit, makes clear that Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was the force behind the development of the pill, but she needed a scientist, a philanthropist and a physician to see the project through.
In the 1940s, Sanger first conceived of a simple pill that would relieve women of the three decades of pregnancies they were subject to at the time. Sanger herself was one of 11 children and the daughter of a woman who also had seven miscarriages.
Jennifer Wu, 22, frowned at this bit of information. Wu, a pre-med student, said she had never heard of a woman having so many pregnancies.
"Honestly I thought after several children, women stopped having sex. I thought women at that time were extremely religious and did not enjoy sex." Wu, who is not on the pill for religious reasons, added that she had been curious about Sanger’s motives and had not understood them until she had seen the film.
In 1953, Sanger contacted Yale biologist Gregory Pincus, well-known for his work on hormones and for conducting a study indicating that progesterone could prevent ovulation. Pincus was widely known for his achievements concerning reproduction. He was the first person to successfully impregnate an animal through artificial insemination, an experiment that brought him an enormous amount of unflattering publicity. Yet, he was determined to continue trying to pursue research into reproduction.
Once Pincus agreed to pursue a contraceptive pill, Sanger need a benefactor to support the support her vision. Katherine McCormick, a wealthy friend from Sanger’s suffrage movement days, came forward. A contraceptive pill using progesterone was developed and tested with the aid of gynecologist John Rock, a devout Catholic who defied his church. Found to be effective, in 1955 the pill was tested on hundreds of women in Puerto Rico. Dismissing complaints of nausea, dizziness, headaches, and stomach pain, Rock and Pincus declared the pill a success. The pill began to be distributed in 1960.
History of the Pill Affects Us All
Ama Vincent, 20, said she was surprised more information was not distributed about the pill.
"I have never felt so informed. It is unfortunate that most women are not aware of the history behind this pill that affects us all," she said after the screening.
Vincent, who relies on the pill, said she appreciated most from the documentary the first-hand interviews with women from the first generation of pill users, such as the woman who learned to appreciate sex as sex.
"We women often take for granted the freedom in our society to participate in the work field or to be promiscuous at times if we so desire," Vincent said. "We still complain about certain stigmas involving sex, but the difference is we can practice those stigmas, unlike the women in the film who were very much committing possible social suicide when they first began practicing birth control."
Jose Monzon, 19, the only one in the group who had studied Sanger before, said he was pleased to see the film’s honesty.
"When the pill first came out there were certain health repercussions involved with taking it that were largely ignored. This documentary did not pretend that those things didn’t exist. It also showed how sexist male physicians were at that time. It makes you wonder how many women really suffered in the early days of the pill before anyone started realizing it had side effects," Monzon said.
Women taking the original 10-milligram dose pill suffered from a wide variety of side effects including nausea, blurred vision, bloating, weight gain, depression, blood clots and strokes. The early pill may also have increased risks for some cancers. When women complained to their doctors about the effects, most physicians dismissed it as exaggeration. The modern version of the pill contains only a fraction of the original dose and side effects are less likely to occur.
Andrea Tone, a historian and author of "Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America," says in the film that 80 percent of all American women born since 1945 have taken the pill. "We cannot understand modern women’s history without thinking about what the pill did for women and also what the pill did to women."
"You know, you never realize the impact presumably small things like the pill have on society until you watch stuff like this," Vincent said once the viewing was over. She added that she felt that, while the film did not alter her perception of the pill, it did provide her with a wealth of valuable information.
Cristina Silva is a freelance writer based in New York.
For more information:
PBS’S "The Pill":
The Margaret Sanger Papers Project: