I haven’t posted in awhile so I thought it would be apropos to wander a bit afield of what I usually post. Today I offer a book review. The book’s full title is The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. The author is Jonathan Eig.
After reading this book cover to cover, I can’t believe it took until 2014 for someone to write it. The book weaves a tale fraught with difficulties at every turn, pushed forward only by the dogged determination of four individuals who all had their own personal reasons for being involved. The result is a book worthy of Ken Burn’s cover quote:
Suspense-filled and beautifully written…an irresistible tale.
Indeed, I would love to see this compelling piece of American history portrayed in a Ken Burns PBS documentary.
Born at the beginning of the 60s, I came of age in the late 70s and early 80s – when Playboy, Penthouse and even Playgirl were duking it out on the newstands and relaxed sexual attitudes were ingrained in our culture – or so I thought. Little did I realize just how much – and in what short time – these attitudes had revolutionized. And none of it would have been remotely possible without widespread availability of contraception.
And the pill? I never really thought about it beyond its utility. One day in the early 70s I found the tell-tale pill dispenser in my mom’s purse. I held the dispenser in my hand and immediately, though somewhat surprisingly, knew what it was. This little pill box that looked like a rotary phone dial was full of, gasp, birth control pills. I put the pills back in my mom’s purse and assumed all women were taking them.
For the next several decades, I was blissfully unaware of just how far someone had to step out on a brittle limb for that pill dial to appear in my mother’s purse. Another someone had to stare down the Catholic church hierarchy. Another pumped a private fortune into the cause and yet another opened up a fledgeling laboratory out of a garage to conduct research after being disgraced at Harvard.
It took a team of four unlikely bedfellows to figure the whole thing out. While reading the book, over and over I marveled at the unflinching vision it must have taken to fight societal pressure to bring something to women that they secretly wanted but that had heretofore been illegal to even discuss publicly in many states.
I am a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t know any of this until I read the book!
The four misfits at the forefront of bringing the world the birth control pill were Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood (no surprise there), Katharine McCormick, heiress to the fortune amassed by the invention of the International Harvester, brilliant biologist Gregory Pincus, thrown out of Harvard in the 1930s for attempting to breed rabbits in Petri dishes and finally, there was John Rock, the staunch Catholic gynecologist who stood up against society and his own church to advocate for women’s reproductive rights.
What struck me most from this book were two things: one, that women were slaves to their reproductive system up to the advent of the pill and two, that the pill could have just as easily never happened.
A Lesser Known Type of Slavery
Many years ago I had a discussion in a bar with some bozo about women in history. He was of the tiresome ilk that men were far superior to women in every way – just look at history. What great things did women do? What did they accomplish? A great woman who made her mark was a needle in a haystack – blah blah blah. In the face of this cretin, I wasn’t able to articulate a proper response but if I were to have this conversation with him today, my response would be along these lines:
Up until well into the 20th century, the vast preponderance of women were either pregnant, nursing a baby, taking care of multiple babies and children, recovering from physical or mental complications from bearing or caring for multiple babies, or far less commonly, ostracized from society because they couldn’t or wouldn’t perform any or all of said roles. I repeat, the female species was slave to its own reproductive system. Women were the vessel through which life emerged and that was their primary role. Procreation and the care of offspring were the God-assigned purpose for which women roamed the earth. If they were childless either by choice or circumstance, women were seen as failures of sorts, and certainly didn’t have the alternative of anything close to access to the career advancement opportunities that men did.
Okay, that’s my one and only feminist rant.
Nowadays, it’s hard for women in the western world to even fathom this type of slavery. After reading this book, I will never again take it for granted.
Path to Freedom
Women racked up so many births in rapid succession that it killed many of them. If they didn’t die in childbirth, they died from exhaustion. Their bodies, and in many cases their minds too, just wore out. Doctors were very sympathetic to the issue of too many babies but were limited as to what they could do to help. Contraception was still illegal in many states.
Since opening the first ever “birth control” clinic in 1916, Margaret Sanger envisioned a ‘biological pill’ that would free women from the chains of their reproductive system. She went looking for a scientist who could bring this pill about and almost no one wanted to touch it. Eig writes about Sanger’s first meeting with Gregory Pincus in 1950, when she asked him if this pill could become a reality.
The other scientists she’d approached, every one of them had said no, and they had given her a long list of reasons. It was dirty, disreputable work. The technology wasn’t there. And even if it somehow could be done, there would be no point. Thirty states and the federal government still had anti-birth-control laws on the books. Why go to the trouble of making a pill no drug company would dare to manufacture and no doctor would dare prescribe?
Social issues aside, there was also the science behind it all and the story of Gregory Pincus and his struggle to make a mark. An expert in mammalian reproduction, he recognized early on that the hormone progesterone, the major player in the pill’s formulation, suppressed ovulation and could be administered. As his experiments led to early concoctions of what would ultimately become the birth control pill, Pincus strongly suspected that in spite of some unpleasant side effects, long term safety was assured. Conducting adequate human trials would prove to be one of the biggest obstacles. Fast forward a bunch of years, when the pill was finally approved by the FDA in 1959, Pincus would receive no direct profit from it. In fact, none of the Pill’s pioneers ever saw any compensation directly attributed to the birth control pill. The pharmaceutical company that won the pill’s FDA approval, J. D. Searle, did pay Pincus and Rock for the remainder of their lives but it was a modest, set amount.
This book piqued my interest more than any other book I’ve read in a great, long while. Written in a warm, personable style, it was refreshing as it simultaneously stirred up my latent feminist leanings.
Below is an interview Margaret Sanger did with Mike Wallace in 1957. Watching it, one is reminded of the backward attitudes America still had about sex even in the late 50s. Sanger does not shine in this interview, at least not outwardly, and afterwards she received hate mail that could rival anything written by any of today’s internet trolls.
Margaret Sanger & Mike Wallace