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What 'The Pill' did
  • This weekend marks the 50-year anniversary of FDA approval for the birth control pill
  • The Pill is widely seen as a 20th-century invention that upended cultural norms
  • Some see it as key to women's control over their destiny, others as harmful to society
  • Fourteen commentators weigh in on The Pill's impact

(CNN) -- It was 50 years ago that the U.S. FDA approved the birth control pill, an anniversary the agency is celebrating this Sunday, which (coincidentally?) happens to be Mother's Day. Here are a range of opinions gathered on the significance of The Pill's introduction, and the cultural ripples it set in motion.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, and the author of nine books, most recently the novel, Three Daughters.

In 1962, when I was a 22-year-old Holly Golightly-wannabe living in Greenwich Village with my dog and my motor scooter, two events had a seismic effect on my life. Helen Gurley Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl, and my doctor at the time (Shepard Aronson, who would become one of the first male members of the National Organization for Women) wrote me a prescription for The Pill.

Each in its way was transformative. Brown's book, which was both frisky and practical, acknowledged what millions had known but denied -- that nice girls "did it" and sometimes even enjoyed it, and that sex need not lead to marriage. In 1962, this was considered shocking.


The impact of The Pill was even more radical. It meant sex need not lead to pregnancy. But it wasn't just another form of contraception, it was an equalizer, a liberator, and easy to take. For the first time in human history, a woman could control her sexuality and determine her readiness for reproduction by swallowing a pill smaller than an aspirin. Critics warned that The Pill would spawn generations of loose, immoral women; what it spawned was generations of empowered women who are better equipped to make rational choices about their lives.

Where's the male birth control pill?

Though it took a while--and the dogged efforts of the feminist health activist, Barbara Seaman--for its creators to get the dose right and add a printed insert informing women of its possible side effects, The Pill bore revolutionary results. It allowed women to become autonomous decision-makers rather than captives of our biology (though many wives, daughters, and girlfriends took it secretly because of the stigma attached to women who assume any sexual initiative).

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It meant involuntary pregnancy could no longer be used as threat or punishment for female sexual activity. It gave us the power to decide if and when we were physically, emotionally, and financially prepared for the immense commitment to bear and raise a child. It helped us plan and space our families. It helped us plan and build careers, or just keep our jobs. (In 1962, employers could, without penalty, fire a woman who got pregnant.)

Since wanted children are often better cared for than unwanted children it meant that more kids were wanted, grew up healthy, supported, and loved. Children like the three my husband and I conceived when I went off the pill once we made the choice to have a family; or like our six grandchildren, all planned.

If my Holly Golightly years had produced an unwanted child, I, who was entirely self-supporting, would have been derailed by joblessness and that child would have been raised in poverty. What's more, I would never have met my beloved husband of 46 years, and my adored children and grandchildren would never have been born.

Raquel Welch is a Golden Globe-winning film, TV and stage actress who has starred in 45 films, including "The Three Musketeers," "Kansas City Bomber" and "Myra Breckinridge." On Broadway she starred in "Woman of the Year" and "Victor/Victoria"; and on TV in the Golden Globe-nominated miniseries "American Family." Her new book is Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage.


Over the course of the last five decades--from 1960 to 2010--it got easier to see how the change in female sexuality since The Pill has irrevocably affected American society, for better and worse.

By the early 60's The Pill had made it easier for a woman to delay having children until after she established herself in a career.

Another significant effect of The Pill on female sexual attitudes during the 60's was, and still is: "Now we can have sex anytime we want, without the consequences. Hallelujah, let's party!"

These days, nobody seems able to "keep it in their pants" or honor a commitment, raising the question: Is marriage still a viable option? I'm ashamed to admit that I myself have been married four times, and yet I still feel that marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, an essential institution that stabilizes society, provides a sanctuary for children. Strong family-orientated communities save us from anarchy.

In stark contrast, a lack of sexual inhibitions, or as some call it, "sexual freedom," has taken the caution and discernment out of choosing a sexual partner, which used to be the equivalent of choosing a life partner. Without a commitment, the trust and loyalty between couples of child bearing age is missing, and obviously leads to increased incidents of infidelity. No one seems immune.

Claudia Goldin, an economic historian and labor economist, is director of the Development of the American Economy program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author, most recently, of The Race between Education and Technology (with Lawrence Katz).


The Pill was a great "enabler." With The Pill, large numbers of college women could embark on careers that involved long-term, up-front time commitments in education and training as physicians, lawyers, veterinarians, managers, and academics, among others. The Pill fostered women's careers by effectively lowering the costs of training.

Sex was risky without a highly effective, female-controlled and easy to use contraceptive. A pregnancy could derail a career, but The Pill enabled women to stay on track. The Pill also served to increase the marriage age by eliminating the main reason for the public commitments that gave sexually-active women insurance, but which often led to marriage.

As more men and women delayed marriage, single women who pursued careers could still get married after their professional training. The upshot is that the marriage age increased and women were enabled to enter various professions because of The Pill. These relationships are shown to be causal because they are identified from state variation in laws and judicial decisions that altered the age at which young women could obtain The Pill.

Although The Pill was approved for sale in 1960, it was not widely available to minors and single women for many years. The evidence points strongly to the power of The Pill in advancing college women's careers.

Erica Jong is a poet, novelist and essayist. Her most famous novel (20 million copies sold) is 1973's Fear of Flying, which was recently anointed a feminist classic by Columbia University's Institute for Research on Women & Gender. She has written 22 books.


May 9th is the pseudo anniversary of The Pill. We Americans love pseudo anniversaries because they help us sell things. Google "the pill" and you get Yaz (drospirenone & ethinyl estradiol--99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when taken as directed).

Yaz is "beyond birth control" the way BP is "beyond petroleum." Yes, it keeps ovulation at bay but it also gets rid of acne, that nasty premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) which back in the day we called "waiting for Aunt Flo," "wearin' the rag," "getting my period," or as my British- born mother said "getting unwell."

Wearin' the rag is a drag, so in the 1930's, when women were still interested in liberation, scientists were looking for a way to get rid of those nasty flows and the rage, depression, weepiness and sexual rapaciousness that comes before it.

Eureka! They found it! Mexican yams could be synthesized into steroids that stopped ovulation cold. The high dosages might give you acne or stop your periods entirely or make it impossible for you to conceive. But there was a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So let us now celebrate The Pill, the liberation of women, and 50 years of obscene profits for big pharma!

Theresa Notare is assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Today, with our renewed sensitivity toward environmental well-being and our preference for healthy organic foods and "green" products, thoughtful people should mourn 50 years of the birth control pill.


Fifty years ago the public spotlight was on the availability of "safe, easy and effective birth control." It would all be very easy -- and women were to be "empowered." Little was said of the many harmful side effects among the women in the developing countries where the drug trials were conducted. The past 50 years has seen a steady stream of new formulations meant to reduce the unpleasant and risky side-effects (and lawsuits) of the last generation of pills.

Beyond that, how are women (and men) healthier or happier because of The Pill? A thoughtful person should connect the dots. Young people routinely have multiple sexual partners before marriage, no doubt facilitated by The Pill, and the divorce rate still soars. The Pill does not prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, accordingly, the STD rate is epidemic.

Some studies claim health benefits of The Pill, yet both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization identify steroidal estrogen, present in some birth control pills, as a carcinogen. And some scientists have begun to explore the link between the runoff of the estrogen into local waters and disruption of fish populations.

Think, people. Dare to ask whether we have something to celebrate.

Nell Irvin Painter, is the author of The History of White People, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University, and currently a graduate student in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.


I can't imagine my life had I not been able to control my fertility. At the age of twenty-two I slept with someone, which meant I had to get married. This wasn't imposed upon me, it just followed from mortification at what I had done.

Luckily my uncle the MD took a longer view. Having seen motherhood pull smart young women like me away from the life of the mind, he gave me a supply of pills when I married. I didn't know it at the time, but my uncle realized that second thoughts about my marriage might well come my way.

What if, once married, I had become pregnant? This was the 1960s, after all, when the odds against combining motherhood with a scholarly career were exceedingly high.

Given my generation, I could hardly have become the historian I am -- the publishing author I have become -- had I been responsible for children. Yes, I know a few women my age who have managed this. But I doubt I could have juggled both kinds of responsibilities at the same time. If you like my books in all their numbers, you have to thank the pill.

Hugh Hefner is the founder, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Creative Officer of Playboy, the world's best-selling men's lifestyle magazine, which is part of a large media and brand licensing company.


I think the arrival of the birth control pill in 1960 was one of the major events of the century. It separated sex and procreation and gave women control over their bodies. Historically, church and state took the position that the only moral purpose of sex was procreation. I took strong exception to that. But it was the birth control pill that made the difference.

Men had prophylactics--rubbers--so they had some control over reproduction, although rubbers were mainly supposed to be used to prevent disease, not for birth control. The Pill put the control in the hands of women. It gave women the capacity to control their own destinies.

I was never enamored of prophylactics, so The Pill permitted the sexual act to be more natural and more loving. I always felt, quite frankly, that the notion that sex was just for procreation was just wrong. Sexual intercourse is about a good deal more than turning two people into parents.

Where's the male birth control pill?

Mary Matalin joined CNN as a Republican strategist and political contributor in April 2009 and now appears on a variety of network programs. She has worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and formerly held the White House positions of assistant to President George W. Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

When The Pill arrived, we second-wave feminists heralded it as a miracle. The Pill had way less to do with reproductive control than just control. Period. Health concerns were dismissed; progressive mothers (whose previous reproductive control dictate for their daughters was to inform them from the first "talk" that it was the girl's job to just say NO!) sent their girls off to college with The Pill.

Talk about mixed messages. Those morally whip-lashed girls with their packages of portable liberation ushered in a generation of women determined to break free from their inferior patriarchal oppressors. And how did they manifest their superiority? Their freedom? Thanks to The Pill, by casual, drive-by sex. Whoa. That really showed those stupid boys.

The smart daughters of that generation lamented the demise of romance. Today's smart daughters just say NO! We've come a long way, baby.

Rebecca Walker is a writer whose books include One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love and Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self.


I visited my local Planned Parenthood with my best friend when I was 12 years old. We both lied about our age, and boldly requested prescriptions for The Pill. With minimal discussion, a kind and attentive doctor signed the little squares of paper, and then handed each of us a brown paper bag filled with a free six-month supply.

I was clearly in need of more than The Pill. I wanted to have sex, felt pressured to have sex, and had no concept of the impact The Pill might play in the delicate dance of my hormonal equilibrium. I also did not understand the connection between The Pill and the escalating divorce rate, though I knew my parents had recently divorced and I felt abandoned and raw as a result.

My doctor was not responsible for my emotional needs, but a holistic view of human sexuality cannot ignore the psycho-emotional implications of such a radical intervention in (contemporary, Western) sexual behavior. I champion The Pill and vehemently oppose those who would deny access, but like many drugs (Viagra, anyone?) believe it should be located within a larger discourse of wellness that includes mental health, societal expectations, and a frank appraisal of various long-term implications.

I also support the ongoing development of a male version of The Pill, which is, yes, different from a condom. The Pill can't be put on and taken off in the moment; it does have long-term physical effects, and it most certainly requires the "permission" of the medical establishment. A Pill for men would ensure that the exquisite burden of this particular choice--and all it currently and forever entails--be shared equally by all.

Carolyn Maloney is the U.S. Representative for New York's 14th District.

I can't talk about the birth control pill without mentioning my dear friend, great feminist and health writer, Barbara Seaman.

In 1969, Ms. Seaman authored "The Doctor's Case Against the Pill" which served as the catalyst to increased pill safety and highlighted the specific and unique needs of women's health. Thanks to Ms. Seaman's work and diligence, women knew about the facts about the pill, could make their own decisions, and benefited from the oversight of the drug--and today, the dosages have been lowered and women's health has improved as a result.

Both controversial and liberating, but above all, revolutionary, the birth control pill gave women and families the ability to plan their children. It was inexpensive, convenient and free of the intrusiveness of other forms of birth control.

It offered spontaneity and security and ultimately transformed both the American home and workplace. Today, more than 22 million women take the pill and are able to take charge of their fertility and their lives -- and for that it should be celebrated.

Elaine Tyler May is Regents Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota, and past president of the Organization of American Historians. Her most recent book is America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation.


Contrary to popular myths, the pill did not spark the sexual revolution. Nor did it fulfill the dreams or fears of those who greeted its arrival in 1960: that it would defuse the "population bomb," end unwed pregnancy, unleash marital bliss to the point where the divorce rate would decline--or, perhaps, that it would create sexual chaos, destroy the family, and unravel society.

None of these dreams or nightmares came true. Curiously, the pill's real impact was hardly perceptible in the clamor that greeted its FDA approval: that it would become an important tool for women to control their fertility, and thereby to control their lives.

But the millions of women who rushed to their doctors for prescriptions as soon as the pill was available understood its revolutionary potential. The pill helped enable women to take advantage of new opportunities in education, professions, jobs and public life.

As the feminist movement pushed open doors for women, the pill helped women march through those doors. But even after fifty years, women still lack full access to the pill and other contraceptives, and wait for family-friendly policies that will make it possible for men and women to combine family life and work without compromising one for the other.

Sara Benincasa is a comedian, writer and hosts the Sirius /XM radio talk show host "Get in Bed" on Cosmo Radio. She was a citizen journalist for the 2008 MTV Choose or Lose Street Team, part of MTV's Think campaign.


The Pill defined my upbringing, paid for the clothes I wore to school, and sent me to college. I grew up with a family that worked in all aspects of birth control production. My great-uncle and his husband worked in the factory, testing diaphragms on a giant phallic FDA-approved model.

I'm not kidding. My father worked on the corporate side, and both my brother and I interned for a summer. When I was a little kid and couldn't find my softball cap before a big game, my dad hurriedly grabbed the first white cap he saw. That's how I ended up playing second base in a branded hat advertising a new multiphasic oral contraceptive. My mother was not amused; I was 11 and didn't even understand what the product was.

"Birth control" was an abstract business term thrown around at dinnertime, with no sexual aspect attached to it. It would be years before I came to realize the Pill had other functions besides paying for my tap dance classes.

When I was older, I went through a rebellious phase. If all teens have to rebel against their family, I certainly did so when I told my dad that his work was "killing babies." This was in my Catholic indoctrination phase, leading up to my confirmation ceremony. I think my dad either rolled his eyes or laughed, the same way my mother did when I preached to her about abstinence.

By the time I actually became sexually active, I was 21 years old and in a hippie phase. "Chemicals are bad," I told my family, and proceeded to use something called the Fertility Awareness Method, which basically involves wishful thinking and a temperature chart. Then, of course, a condom broke. My first experience with oral contraceptives was Plan B, the emergency contraception pill.

After years of resistance to doing what my parents said, I finally saw the light and started taking birth control. However, I refused to take the particular brand that my father had been instrumental in producing.

"I don't want my DAD to have anything to do with my sex life," I said. "GROSS!"

Today, I'm so incredibly thankful to have access to the Pill. It's a part of my daily routine, along with Prozac and Cheerios (all equally delicious). And I'm proud, rather than grossed out, that my family has played a small role in its production over the past 30 years.

Deanna Zandt is a media technologist and the author of the forthcoming Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking.


When I was a teenager in the early '90s, I started having issues with my reproductive system. I'll spare you the details, but the solution was, despite my stunning lack of need otherwise, for me to start taking birth control pills. My friends were jealous--parentally approved birth control!--and I barely thought twice about it after the initial excitement wore off.

Now in my 30s and active in feminist movements, especially as they relate to technology, I reflect on the privilege I absorbed from the women and men who struggled for me to not have to think twice about taking a medication that was going to save me from the early hysterectomy fate of other women in my family.

Because of the Pill, I'm able to not just make choice about if I'll reproduce, but also have control over my everyday health and well-being. The anniversary of the Pill's release onto the markets offers an opportunity to give thanks to those who fought for women's rights to own their bodies, and to continue to make stands against those who would take those rights away.

Erin Kotecki Vest is Political Director and Producer of Special Projects for BlogHer, Inc.


I'm running my hands over the homemade necklace my daughter made me for Mother's Day. Its soft foam and wooden blocks make it the sort of thing every Mom cherishes. She handed it today to me with great pride during her preschool celebration, thrilled I would wear it back to work and show it off on my blog.

Work and motherhood -- something I'm not sure how I would have managed were it not for The Pill.

You see, like many women, I timed both of my pregnancies. I had control over the reproduction part of sex during my now 10-year marriage. I could decide at what point during my journalism career I was ready for children, and we could plan parenthood right along with my climb up the ladder.

Giving women control over reproduction means giving them control over their own fate. I am a wife, a blogger, a mother -- when I want, how I want, and with the freedom to remain sexual. The pill means I can have it all, and sacrifice nothing. It has taken the dream of my Mother's generation -- that of "Superwoman" -- and turned it into my reality.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.