The Pill and the Fertility Control Revolution


Last week, I interviewed Elaine Tyler May about her remarkable new history America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how May busts the myth that the pill created the sexual revolution, pointing out that this would require single women using the pill en masse in order to have sex, and that simply didn’t happen during the sexual revolution era of the 60s and early 70s.  The pill’s main appeal was to women who were already sexually active, and the pill was used not for a sexual revolution so much as a fertility control revolution, as a way for sexually active women to take advantage of all the new opportunities that feminism was opening up for them. In fact, May found that as late as 1972, “three-fourths of sexually active young single women rarely or never used contraception.”

Some of the reasons were social, of course.  As many feminists pointed out at the time, the sexual revolution was a sexual revolution for men, and women were still subject to much of the same shame and secrecy about sex that they had felt before. The only difference is they were now expected to put out anyway. But being prepared with contraception beforehand was still viewed as an unacceptable sign of sluttiness. But legality was also a factor. Eisenstadt vs. Baird, the Supreme Court decision that mandated legal contraception for single people, wasn’t decided until 1972, and of course Roe vs. Wade wasn’t decided until 1973. It wasn’t until after this era that a revolution could really begin against the double standard that applauds men for having sex while shaming women for the same. Compared to the sexual revolution, the double standard revolution is a far bloodier, more intractable conflict. 

In part, that’s because opponents to the sexual revolution have always really been more interested in upholding the double standard than anything else. There’s some lip-smacking from anti-choicers about controlling male sexuality, but the vast majority of their time and attention is aimed at making sure sexually active single women are punished for their transgressions, usually through forced pregnancy.  Contraception and legal abortion offend because they give women more than the choice of whether or not to have a baby, but also expand choices about when to marry and who to marry.  Easily accessible legal contraception has laid waste to the shotgun marriage, for instance, and anti-choicers really love shotgun marriages.  And it’s this freedom for single women that drives much of the angst about contraception and abortion to this day.

Despite this intense struggle, the sexual landscape for unmarried women looks dramatically different than it did in 1972. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the percentage of women using contraception at first intercourse alone has doubled from the 1970s, and now 79 percent of women having intercourse for the first time use something. In addition, 98 percent of sexually active women—married, never married, sometimes married—have used some form of contraception. Contraception has become almost synonymous with sex, as much a part of the standard heterosexual sexual experience as a bed and nudity.  Even the group of people with the most obstacles put between them and contraception—teenagers—use contraception. Guttmacher also reports that at most recent sex, 83 percent of teenage girls report using some form of contraception.

But the sea change in what it means to be a single woman has extended far beyond just the right to say no to being pregnant or staying pregnant.  It’s also extended to the right to have a baby without being shoehorned into a relationship you don’t want.  Or the right to be treated like a full citizen if you’re a mother, but the father of your child has abandoned you.  In the past, single women who wanted to be mothers were often denied that choice, and instead had illegal abortions or gave their babies up in highly coercive situations.  Now that the option to have babies while single is on the table, almost 40 percent of women giving birth are unmarried. 

Back in the 60s and 70s, the pill was often seen by women as a tool used by married women with children to escape the grind of having one baby after another.  Think of Loretta Lynn’s famous song “The Pill.” Nowadays, using contraception to delay childbirth and marriage until they’re more certain of their choices.  The result?  The average age a woman is when she has her first child is 25.  The average age of first marriage has been creeping up as well, and now it’s nearly at age 26 for women, also an all-time high since the Census has been tracking it.

When Loretta Lynn wrote “The Pill”, she was celebrating older mothers who used it to limit their family size.  Back then, the pill was the reason so many married women in their 30s could avoid having babies.  Nowadays, it is part of the reason that we’re seeing an uptick in women in their 30s having babies. Nowadays, more babies are born to women over 35 than to teenagers.

Conservatives oppose abortion and at least contraception education for teenagers because they long for the old “one size fits all” narrative for women that dominated the 50s: Marry your first sex partner when you’re young (usually because you have to, because you’re pregnant), have a bunch of kids instead of having time for a career and education, and hope your husband never decides to leave you.  But the genie is out of the bottle now, and women simply won’t tolerate being shoved in that box.

Look at what happened with would-be conservative heroine Bristol Palin.  When she turned up as a pregnant teenager, the Palin family assured their conservative base that all was good, because Bristol would be following the 50s-era script by marrying her boyfriend and settling into domestic life.  But even though Bristol is the daughter of a conservative icon, she couldn’t stick to the script, instead going the route of 40 percent of American women giving birth who chose the single mother path.  The base has had to settle for monitoring Bristol closely to make sure she never experiences pleasure outside of the officially acceptable joys of raising her baby. 

The pill may not have kicked off the sexual revolution, but it did aid the feminist revolution.  And that in turn created a different kind of sexual revolution, one where women began rejecting social control over our sexual decision-making, and the single narrative for how to live our lives on offer in the 1950s.

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