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The pill and the marriage revolution
The birth control pill arrived on the market in 1960. Within two years, 1.2 million American women were “on the pill.” By 1964, it was the most popular contraceptive in the country.
Looking back, Americans credit—or blame—the pill with unleashing the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The pill is widely believed to have loosened sexual mores, including the double standard that sanctioned premarital sex for men but not for women. But, according to historian Elaine Tyler May, this idea is largely a myth. As May explained to a Stanford audience, the pill’s impact on the sexual revolution is unclear. What is clear is that the drug had a far greater impact within marriage itself.
Single women and the sexual revolution
The trend toward greater sexual freedom for unmarried women actually pre-dated the arrival of the pill. Although many of us associate a “sexual revolution” with the 1960s (and with the pill), sexual strictures eroded gradually, over many decades. A major change occurred in the 1920s, when new dating customs provided unmarried couples with greater privacy and greater opportunity for physical intimacy. By the early 1950s, half of all American women had engaged in sex before marriage, and the arrival of the pill in 1960 did not have any immediate impact on the trend. (Single women’s sexual activity rose sharply in the late 1960s and the 1970s, coinciding with the feminist movement rather than the pill.) As a contemporary physician explained, “The pill does not make people decide to have sex. It is after they decide to have sex that they go get the pill.” For young women, the decision of whether to take the pill usually came once they were regularly having sex, not before. Given that the trend toward sexual freedom occurred so gradually, and given that most women did not use the pill for their first sexual encounter, May argues that it makes little sense to say that the pill “caused” a sexual revolution.
Besides, many sexually-active single women used other forms of contraception, or no contraception at all. Given lingering cultural taboos against unmarried sex, some young women feared that going on the pill meant they would no longer be “good girls.” According to contemporary psychologist Ernst Prelinger, young women did not want to appear “always sexually ready.” For those who did seek birth control prescriptions, access was often difficult. Many doctors were either unwilling to prescribe the pill to unmarried women or were prevented from doing so by state law. (Some women got around these rules, for example by wearing a fake engagement ring.) Many college-age women did not feel comfortable going to their hometown family doctor for a prescription but also did not have an on-campus source for birth control pills. By the end of the 1960s only 45 percent of college health centers offered prescriptions for oral contraceptives. Given these limitations, many young women, including those who participated in the “sexual revolution,” did not utilize the pill.
The pill and marriage
What, then, was the social effect of the pill? May argues that the drug’s most notable impact occurred within the institution of marriage itself. After all, she notes, “the vast majority of women who rushed off to their doctors to obtain prescriptions for oral contraceptives were married.” The pill gave married women greater ability to plan and space children, allowing them to pursue educational and career opportunities. Combined with the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, these developments allowed some women to obtain increased equality within marriage.
Country singer Loretta Lynn summed up the importance of oral contraception for married women in her 1975 hit, “The Pill.” The humorous song tells of a young wife who resents her husband’s nights out on the town, while she herself is tied to the home by constant pregnancy and childbearing. With access to the pill, she throws away her voluminous maternity dress and declares her liberation. But her newfound freedom does not lead to sexual promiscuity, rather it enhances her marriage. With effective birth control, she invites her husband to a night of worry-free sex, promising, “Oh daddy don’t you worry none / ‘Cause mama’s got the pill.” Rather than unleashing a sexual revolution, the pill increases this woman’s enjoyment of married life.
May believes that the pill was and remains an important tool for women to limit their fertility and to gain greater control over their lives. But without the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the pill would have been simply one more form of birth control. After all, other effective contraceptives such as the diaphragm and the condom had been available for years before the pill was approved in 1960. While the pill was arguably more convenient than these methods, it was not inherently “revolutionary.” The revolution came under the influence of the women’s movement, when the pill became one among many strategies that women used to achieve self-determination.
More Gender News: Read Practice of 'living together' without marriage has long, complex history.
Elaine Tyler May is Regents Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota and the author of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (2010). Her talk at Stanford was presented by the American Studies Program and co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute, the Program in Feminist Studies, and the Department of History.