The American journalist Jonathan Eig is neither a woman nor, indeed, an expert on women’s reproductive health (his previous bestsellers, as he points out, were about “ballplayers and gangsters”). Rather gamely, considering the sensitivities and politics involved, he’s chosen to write a history of the development of the birth control pill — and he carries it off with wit, verve and scholarly research.
The book’s full title leaves us in no doubt about the subject matter: The Birth of the Pill: How Four Pioneers Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution is both a gripping story of scientific discovery and a reminder that women’s emancipation is a recent and hard-won victory. Almost everyone in this book (other than two of the “pioneers”, Margaret Sanger and Katharine Dexter McCormick) is a man. We hear from churchmen, doctors, legislators, husbands: women’s bodies were in their hands.
“In 1956,” Eig reminds us, “a woman still had to be shockingly bold to admit in public that she liked sex, especially if she was unmarried. Doctors still referred to sex as ‘the sex act’, which, like the preparation of dinner and the ironing and folding of laundry, was considered part of a married woman’s responsibilities.” (It probably didn’t help that some medical textbooks of the time omitted the words penis and vagina from their pages.)
Freeing women from the burden of endless pregnancy was a life-long crusade for Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). When she met the maverick scientist Gregory Goodwin Pincus in 1950, she had been a household name in the US for decades. One of 11 children herself, Sanger opened the first US birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 and was a tireless campaigner: she lived long enough to see a 1965 US Supreme Court decision ruling that birth control was a basic right for US citizens.
In 1950, Sanger had called Pincus to her New York apartment to ask him to develop a pill that would stop women from getting pregnant. Every other scientist she’d approached had refused: this was unpopular, “dirty” work — and 30 US states had anti-birth control laws on their books.
Pincus, brought vividly to life by Eig, was different. With “the IQ of an Einstein and the nerves of a card shark”, he was “probably the world’s leading expert on mammalian reproduction”. Having lost his job at Harvard, Pincus had set up his own (somewhat ramshackle) research institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. He had nothing to lose by joining forces with Sanger. There’s also a passing mention of Carl Djerassi, who died this month at 91, one of the scientists who developed synthetic progesterone (although his compound was not used by Pincus).
Pincus’s research on rabbits had already led him to the promising discovery that injecting the hormone progesterone prevented ovulation. “What if the same contraceptive could be delivered in a tablet form, effectively tricking the woman’s body into thinking that it was already pregnant?” Pincus needed a gynaecologist to help him with trials and found John Rock, a devout Catholic whose work with women desperate for children — or not to have children — had given him a very human and humane outlook. He was also, crucially, “both charming and challenging”, and someone acceptable to the conservative establishment.
The fourth “pioneer”, Katharine Dexter McCormick, provided a vital cash injection. One of the first women to graduate in science from MIT, in 1904 she had married Stanley McCormick, heir to a vast manufacturing fortune, only to find him descending into severe mental illness that lasted a lifetime. In 1950, recently widowed, she had vast wealth — and contacted Sanger to ask “where you think the greatest need of financial support is today for the National Birth Control Movement?”
The first pill, Enovid, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1957 after being tested on just 130 women (the data were presented by Pincus’s team as based on a more impressive “1,279 menstrual cycles”). It was to be sold not as a contraceptive but only for menstrual disorders. Women knew what it was for, and asked for it anyway.
Eventually, in 1960, the Pill was approved for birth control. By 1962, 1.2m women in the US were taking it. It’s since been a game-changer for millions of us. But Eig’s book reminds women not to take anything for granted in the battle for equality. Its success had sprung, as Eig concludes, “more than anything, from the courage and conviction of the characters involved”. This book is a fitting tribute to their struggle.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Pioneers Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, by Jonathan Eig, Macmillan, RRP£20/WWNorton, RRP$27.95, 388 pages
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