Just one medication is so prevalent that it is dubbed simply “The Pill”—it was referred to as the key to liberation (Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song), listed as of one of the seven wonders of the modern world (The Economist, 1993), named a driving force behind women overtaking men in professional roles in the U.S. (Forbes, 2010), and now remains a point of contention even decades after its popularization.
The tiny tablet’s advent in 1960 triggered more than just lasting controversy. It sparked liberation from the glorified homemaker cliché and a choice beyond being married with a child by the age of 21, which was the case for the average American woman during that time. To women of Generation X, the 28-day dial’s separation between sex and procreation represented control, power, and careerism.
Watch: The Pill on Generation X
Today, almost 11 million women from all walks of life rely on the Pill to give them control over contraception. But this wasn’t without strife and debate—and the discussion still isn’t over. It began in 1956, when a physician named Gregory Pincus found the right formula for an oral contraceptive, but questioned if it would be accepted. The original Pill was Envoid, a medication for menstrual regulation, but when G.D. Searle and Co., who had been following Pincus’ research, saw that 500,000 women were professedly using Envoid for its original purpose but also enjoying its “contraceptive side effects” outlined on the label, Searle decided to monopolize on the popularity and apply for FDA approval to use the drug as a contraceptive.
In 1960, the FDA approved a lower dose of Envoid’s formula for contraceptive purposes, but it still had 10 milligrams of progesterone, causing side effects and discomfort—not to mention backlash and questioning. After trial and tribulation, the doses we see in birth control pills today can have as little as 1 milligram of progesterone. But even though the dosage has reduced, the discussion surrounding oral contraceptives has not. It’s no longer about the safety, but as to whether it should require a prescription, what the cost should be, and more.
Though the Pill represented freedom for some and questioning for others, there is no doubt that its approval and recognition was an integral player in the fight to gender equality, women’s liberation, and some profound cultural shifts as a whole. Even the doubt helped to fuel the movement—as women questioned men’s role in the Pill’s development and approval, and more women wanted their voices heard. “If women are going to have control and power in society, they have to be able to control when they have children, and they have to be able to make money,” said Gloria Feldt, former CEO of Planned Parenthood. “The pill brought together the economics and the fertility timeline in a neat little package.”
From U.S. Supreme Court Cases giving married couples the constitutional right of contraception in 1965 (Griswold v. Connecticut) to giving unmarried individuals that same right in 1975 (Eisenstadt v. Baird), the process that Generation X witnessed first-hand subsequently changed the human sexual landscape, making family planning the cultural norm, safely and effectively reducing unintended pregnancy and freeing women to fulfill educational, political, and professional aspirations.
For a deeper look at Generation X’s evolution of political consciousness in context of women’s liberation, civil rights, and more, watch Generation X: The Politics of X this Sunday, March 20 at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.