The Brief, Wondrous Life of the Pill

“I can’t believe we still have to protest this crap.”

Hayley Carter
Dec 17, 2016 · 6 min read
Time magazine cover, April 7 ,1967

Have we been taking birth control for granted? Maybe.

To me, the Pill always seemed like just another technological advancement, another thing we could thank modern medicine for. While there are many types of birth control (condoms, IUDs, hormonal patches, vaginal rings, etc.), birth control pills are easy to start and stop, and, importantly, a wholly individual endeavor — you only need to rely on yourself taking one pill a day to make them work.

As of November 8th, 2016, my tune — and the tune of thousands of young college-aged women across the country — has changed. With Donald Trump as the country’s President-elect, and Mike Pence as Vice President-elect, women are buckling down for a war on birth control by finding more permanent solutions to avoiding pregnancy.

So, let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively short life of the Pill from the 1960s to the present.


Kalamazoo College Homecoming Court ca. 1963 (Kalamazoo Gazette, Bob Maxwell)

It’s 1963.

JFK is president, “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys is one of the top single hits of the year, and ZIP codes have just been introduced for the first time. The Pill has been available for almost three years, but few doctors prescribe it to unmarried women. Female college students have curfews, and more than half the women getting married are under 21. Betty Friedan publishes the Feminine Mystique, reawakening women’s movements across the country.

In Sex in the Heartland, author Beth Bailey (Harvard UP, 1999) writes that the socio-sexual landscape of most colleges in 1965 resembled that of 1955, in that the post-WWII middle-class culture of respectability prevailed, and provided clear rules for young people about sexual behavior, the most important of which was no sex outside of marriage.

This was the era of in loco parentis, where universities acted “in the place of parents” by structuring and enforcing a system of ideological controls for their students. A major part of in loco parentis were sets of rules called parietals that governed when and under what circumstances women could leave their dormitories in the evenings and on weekends. Often, these included sign-out procedures and strict curfews whereby men could “sign out” women for the night and women could accrue cumulative late minutes before facing the possibility of losing “privileges”.

An official publicity photo of two Kansas University students on a “Coke date” at the Student Union (1946)

In a University of Michigan student handbook, 9 of the 15 pages were devoted to the details of women’s hours and curfew regulations. Intimacy among college students was hierarchal, centered around lines and boundaries such as kissing, necking, petting above the waist, petting below the waist, petting through clothes, then under clothes, and so on. There was also a set of “official” relationship statuses: going steady, lavaliered, pinned, engaged.

It was into this world that birth control began to spread rapidly, and when arguably, the sexual revolution began.


It’s 1972.

The Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional to refuse prescriptions for the Pill to unmarried women, and over ten million women are taking it. The Supreme Court also rules that the death penalty is unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia, the movie The Godfather premieres, women are accepted to Dartmouth College for the first time, and anti-Vietnam War protests are still prevalent on college campuses.

Original copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, which was revolutionary in its discussion of sexuality and abortion, circa 1970. (OurBodiesOurselves.org)

There has been a noticeable change in attitude in the past few years as students no longer ask for freedom by arguing that they are responsible enough to earn it, but instead demand it.

In 1967, an unmarried woman wrote the following letter to the editor of the Kansas University campus newspaper, claiming her right to both sex and the Pill:

"I’m a woman and I’m glad…I take the Pill because I’d rather express my love than repress it. I’m not promiscuous, but once in a while I meet a ‘special’ guy. I’ve seen too many girls on campus totally disregard school for several weeks as they suffer anxiety over a missed menstrual period…If a girl takes one chance a year, that’s enough to warrant taking the pill.”

The burgeoning sexual revolution was bolstered by the continuing social and economic transformations of postwar America. The changes in sexual behavior that characterized this revolution had been gradual, more like an evolution, but were the result of radical claims in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Marcia Goldstein, publicity director for Planned Parenthood, reviewing a bus ad in 1967. (Reddit)

The Pill acted as one of the conventionally non-revolutionary aspects of a revolution, the beginning of sexual freedoms that ushered in wider freedoms for women.


Circa 2016

A protester’s sign in a march for birth control rights. (Women’s eNews)

Women in the U.S. now face the possibility of losing access to low-cost birth control, and they’re panicking.

As Erin Gloria Ryan states in a Daily Beast article warning women of the possible repercussions of Trump presidency, she says, “A Trump-Pence administration will surely Make Birth Control A Huge Pain In The Ass Again.” And based on statements they’ve each made throughout their campaign, they could make quite a team.

Trump has said he would like to repeal Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act on the first day of his presidency. Before the Affordable Care Act counted birth control as preventative medicine, intrauterine devices (IUDs) cost between five hundred and nine hundred dollars. The ACA also provides birth control pills for free.

Pence, who has a particularly dismal record in protecting women’s reproductive rights, has also made statements saying the Trump administration would abolish an Obamacare birth control mandate that requires employers to provide insurance that covers some form of birth control.

In the week after the election, #ThxBirthControl was trending on Twitter and women were publishing “comprehensive guides” to getting IUDs, with the pretense that an IUD would be able to outlast Trump’s impending presidency.

This past week, Trump nominated Georgia Congressman Tom Price to run the Department of Health and Human Services — a man who fought to block the Obamacare birth control mandate and who said he had never heard of a woman who had had difficulty accessing contraception if she needed it. He has also been a strong opponent of abortion, and has co-sponsored legislation that would give fetuses a status of “personhood”.

“Bring me one woman who has been left behind. Bring me one. There’s not one.” — Tom Price

On the contrary, a Planned Parenthood survey conducted in 2010 found that 1 in 3 women had struggled to pay for prescription birth control at some point in their lives.

This election is giving women like me, who are in college and don’t want to have children right now, an all-too-real sense of how much freedom birth control pills have given us by facing the possibility of not having them. Let us not forget that the Pill in itself was a revolution for the first generation of women that were able to use it, and how valuable it is to ourselves and so many women today. Maintaining these freedoms is a constant struggle that we cannot give up on — we deserve to have power over our bodies.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Thanks to Michael Mark Cohen and Kristen Wilson

Hayley Carter

Written by

UC Berkeley graduate looking for ways to change the world…and trying not to sweat the small stuff.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

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