Elaine Tyler May(WOMENSENEWS)–It was the spring of 1960. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had just approved the oral contraceptive for marketing. The pill’s arrival marked the culmination of years of development and testing and heralded a new era in a long history of birth control. For the first time, a method of contraception separated birth control technology from the act of sexual intercourse and was nearly 100 percent effective.

Women wasted no time demanding prescriptions–a surprise to doctors, who normally told their patients what to take, rather than the other way around. Within two years of its approval, 1.2 million American women were taking the pill every day. By 1964 the pill was the most popular contraceptive in the country, used by more than 6.5 million married women and untold numbers of unmarried women.

But "the pill," as it quickly came to be known, was more than simply a convenient and reliable method to prevent pregnancy. For its advocates, developers, manufacturers and users, the pill promised to solve the problems of the world.

Daunting Problems

In 1960, those problems seemed daunting. The nation was in the midst of Cold War with the Soviet Union, locked in a battle for the hearts and minds–and markets and political alliances–of peoples around the world. Former colonies were gaining their independence and the two superpowers vied for their allegiance.

American officials feared that communism might take hold in the developing world as a result of widespread poverty, due in part to the rapidly rising global population. They also foresaw that overpopulation could lead to human misery, unrest, violence and war.

At home, the nation was in the midst of the baby boom. Couples married young and had children quickly. Yet American women were growing restless. They were eager for a reliable contraceptive that would free them from constant childbearing so they could take advantage of new opportunities opening up for women outside the home.

At the same time, the sexual revolution was churning just below the surface of domestic tranquility. Despite the taboo against premarital intercourse and the widespread celebration of marriage and family, the trend toward sexual activity without wedlock had already begun. A youth culture was emerging that would challenge many of the social, political and sexual norms of the past, and the feminist movement was on the horizon. In 1960, when the Food and Drug Administration approved the pill, the forces swirling around its arrival clashed in thunderous clamor.

A ‘Magic Bullet’

While some observers and commentators feared that the pill would wreak havoc on morals and sexual behavior, others claimed that it would cure the social, sexual and political ills of the day. In keeping with the military metaphors that permeated life in the early Cold War era, many saw the pill as a "magic bullet" that would avert the explosion of the "population bomb." By reducing the population, it would alleviate the conditions of poverty and unrest that might lead developing nations to embrace communism, and instead promote the growth of markets for consumer goods and the embrace of capitalism.

The pill would also bolster the "nuclear" family in the nuclear age with its promise of marital bliss. By freeing married couples from fears of unwanted pregnancy, it would foster planned and happy families–the key to social order. Medical and pharmaceutical promoters of the oral contraceptive often cast it as the means to this end, with success marked by the achievement of national and global transformation.

Curiously, the pill’s most vocal advocates were relatively quiet regarding the impact of oral contraceptives on those who would take them every day: women themselves. With the exception of Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, two elderly activists in the women’s rights movement who were responsible for the development of the pill in the 1950s, few of the pill’s earliest developers and advocates saw its potential to liberate women.

Women, however, saw it as precisely that. When the birth control pill arrived on the market, it unleashed a contraceptive revolution. For the first time, women had access to an effective form of birth control that did not require men’s cooperation or even their knowledge.

The Problems Remain

As it turned out, the pill did not solve all the problems of the world. It did not eradicate poverty, nor did it eliminate unwanted pregnancies or guarantee happy marriages. But it became a major player in many of the most dramatic and contentious issues of the last half of the 20th century: the quest for reproductive rights; challenges to the authority of medical, pharmaceutical, religious and political institutions; changing sexual mores and behaviors; reevaluation of foreign policy and foreign aid; and women’s emancipation.

The pill did not cause any of these developments or determine their outcome, but it was a hot-button issue for debate amid the social and cultural upheaval of the time. Eventually, the pill took its place not as the miracle drug that would save the world, but as an important tool in women’s efforts to achieve control over their lives.

Although the developers of the pill came from many different countries and its impact was felt globally, in many ways the story of the pill is an American story. Two American women, Sanger and McCormick, succeeded in getting the pill developed. It was also mostly American researchers and physicians who created and tested it, primarily American pharmaceutical companies that initially marketed it and American women, overwhelmingly, who consumed it.

From "America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation" by Elaine Tyler May. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books (www.basicbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.

Elaine Tyler May is Regents Professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of several books, including "Homeward Bound" and "Barren in the Promised Land." She has served as president of the American Studies Association and president of the Organization of American Historians. She lives in Minneapolis.

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