Geopolitics and the Pill

Mistaken prophecies about the impact of oral contraception


America + The Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, by Elaine Tyler May, Basic Books, 199 pages, $25.95

When the Food and Drug Administration approved oral contraception in 1960, everybody understood that it was a big deal. But according to Elaine Tyler May, author of America + The Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, an awful lot of people were wrong about why it was a big deal. Contrary to the expectations of the time, the Pill did not 1) defuse the population bomb, 2) end the Cold War, or 3) turn American women into sexually ravenous maneaters.

When it appeared on the market, American women, who during the previous decade had been marrying young and spawning vigorously, went on the Pill in droves; 6.5 million of them were taking a daily dose by 1964. But high-level debate over the contraceptive's potential impact involved far more masculine concerns. The Pill would prove decisive in the twilight struggle against the Soviets. The Pill would prevent overpopulation. Optimists argued that if men were freed to have more sex there would be fewer wars. Pessimists pondered the dangerous social effects of unleashing female sexuality. All those big thinkers were so busy analyzing the ways the Pill was going to change the world that they missed the real revolution. 

But there were two women who knew from the beginning what the Pill's real impact would be. In the early 1950s, word of scientific research involving Mexican yams and a bunch of infertile rabbits reached the ears of crusaders Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick. Sanger, a political firebrand who had coined the phrase birth control, was the grand dame of the contraception movement. McCormick was the purse (and the brains) of the duo. They made contact with chemist Carl Djerassi, who had discovered that Mexican yams could be a cheap source of synthetic progesterone, a hormone used to inhibit ovulation. Djerassi didn't have contraception in mind when he undertook his research; his lab was simply looking for inexpensive ways to make a bunch of different biologically relevant compounds. But another Sanger scientist, Gregory Pincus, quickly saw the potential of the new, cheap progestin. 

McCormick, the first woman to get a science degree from MIT, used the fortune of her schizophrenic husband to drop about $2 million—$15 million in today's money—on the Pill project during the next several years. While Sanger's interest was linked to her geopolitical concerns (she had a sideline in eugenics), she and McCormick were mainly aiming to liberate married women from the drudgery of bearing and rearing an unpredictable number of children. But the people, mostly men, who worked on the actual development and promotion of the Pill weren't too interested in how it would affect individual women. They had agendas of their own.

Elaine Tyler May's previous book was about family life during the Cold War, which gives her a slightly different approach to the topic than the usual feminist interpretation. A professor of history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, May touches on women's reactions to the Pill, but her best passages describe the male counterpoints to those feminine conversations. In the 1960s, in many ways, the male chatter still mattered more. America + The Pill is slim, and it relies heavily on secondary sources. But it is packed with the words of bewildered men so desperately trying to use the Pill to alleviate geopolitical concerns that they failed to understand the private revolution under their noses.

Change came more slowly than you might think. In 1967 only 45 percent of the nation's colleges had health services that were prescribing the Pill for female students. At the University of Kansas, the Pill was only on offer for married students over the age of 18. According to May, when Lawrence, Kansas, officials finally approved the Pill for single women, they did so not to support female empowerment but on the grounds that it would put a dent in overpopulation.

The population bomb was the global warming of the 1960s and '70s. The problem was urgent, no one quite knew how to fix it, and the proposals offered by the most radical reformers, such as forced sterilization, made the general public understandably squeamish. Still, there was a wide consensus that there were too many people on the earth and that we were barreling toward global starvation and resource war. 

And as with carbon dioxide emissions, Americans who felt uneasy about their own production—of babies, in this case—could comfort themselves by looking to an even more egregious situation abroad. World population increased by half a billion people in the 1950s, with more than half of that growth in Asia. Lyndon Johnson raised funding for domestic family planning from $8.6 million to $56.3 million as part of his War on Poverty. But making fewer children at home was deemed less important than making fewer children overseas. U.S. funding for international birth control jumped from $2.1 million in 1965 to $131.7 million in 1969.

Those population fears eventually faded. To the extent that they linger, the Pill is rarely the method of choice for Western-funded birth control initiatives in the developing world. Even in the 1960s, the IUD—which could be put in place and remain effective for years without any attention on the part of the woman or her doctor—was the favored option. This was especially true in Third World countries where population control strategies took a more coercive form; better a one-time operation than a daily private choice.

In public rhetoric, the population bomb was linked closely to the hydrogen bomb. Before Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, which sold 2 million copies between 1968 and 1974, there was Hugh Moore's 1954 pamphlet "The Population Bomb." Moore, who ran the Dixie Cup corporation, thought "voluntary sterilization" could be a weapon in the Cold War. His pamphlet, which was widely distributed by the Hugh Moore Fund for International Peace, declared: "We're not primarily interested in the sociological or humanitarian aspects of birth control. We are interested in the use…which the Communists make of hungry people." Overpopulation leads to hunger, Moore argued, and "hunger brings turmoil—and turmoil, as we have learned, creates the atmosphere in which the communists seek to conquer the earth."

Moore may have been an extremist, but as May notes, even Margaret Sanger, who wasn't shy about her extreme left-wing views, advocated "national security through birth control." Not every Cold Warrior cared for contraception; Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) worried that the promotion of birth control in America was a plot to spread immorality. But the skeptics were in the minority.

Since healthy, happy people were thought less likely to go red, some alert citizens favored birth control at home to sow good cheer. As early as 1940, a statement from Planned Parenthood declared: "A nation's strength does not depend upon armaments and manpower alone; it depends upon the contentment…of its people. To the extent that birth control contributes to the health and morale of our people, it makes them less receptive to subversive propaganda, more ready to defend our national system." The worry then was about Nazis, not communists, but activists had no trouble updating the rhetoric when the Cold War followed World War II. By 1965 this view had percolated up to the mainstream, with President Johnson declaring in his State of the Union address that year, in a section entitled "The Non-Communist World," that "I will seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity of world resources."

Even when people did discuss the prospect that liberating women from the paralyzing fear of conception might help them enjoy sex a bit more, the focus remained on the geopolitical implications of ladies' relaxing into nookie. The same year that Moore was warning against the communizing effect of high birth rates, one of the clinical researchers who developed the Pill, John Rock, declared, "The greatest menace to world peace and decent standards of life today is not atomic energy but sexual energy." For Rock, uncontrolled breeding was a threat to civilization. The oral contraceptive, he thought, could fix all that, and if it were developed quickly enough "the H-bomb need never fall."

Rock wasn't alone in comparing sexuality to an explosion. Moore called the burgeoning population "as disruptive and dangerous as the explosion of the atom, and with as much influence on the prospects for progress or disaster, war or peace."

While Rock and Moore looked to protect America's shores, Hugh Hefner was maintaining the defense of America's bachelor pads. During much of its first decade in the 1950s and early '60s, Playboy largely ignored the question of contraception. As Hefner made his case for no-strings sex, he initially did not focus on the interior lives of the women involved. When the magazine did acknowledge the topic, it did so by running letters in the mid-1960s from men and Freudian psychologists freaked out at the prospect that, freed from the fear of pregnancy, the women of America would suddenly become sexually rapacious while the men of America would discover that they were unable to satisfy their wives and girlfriends. One expert explained that the American husband was coming home "mentally and physically spent—in no mood to satisfy his newly libidinous, pill-taking wife."

As the 1960s wore on and the Pill became more commonplace, Hefner came around to the male upside. He became increasingly insistent, in May's words, that female conscientious objectors to the Pill were "neurotic, prudish, hostile to men, or unwilling to take responsibility for contraception."

But adoption of the Pill, while rapid for married women, was slower for the singles who interested Hefner most. Throughout the 1960s, premeditated sex (as evidenced by taking precautions such as the Pill) was considered a worse cultural crime than sex committed in the heat of passion. Birth control technology changed, but for at least a decade after the release of the Pill, women were more likely to be gatekeepers than maneaters.

The sexual revolution was the result of a complex convergence of circumstances, not a chemical reaction and a biological response. As Gloria Steinem put it in 1962, "the pill is obviously important to the sexual and contraceptive revolutions but it is not the opening bombshell of either one."

Steinem's observation can be extended to the other revolutionary hopes people had for the tablet. The fantasy of a single pill that offers a quick fix for the problems of modern life is powerful and enduring, and when a new form of birth control appeared it was easy to overestimate the ways it might fix the most stubborn problems of the day. The big thinkers were so obsessed with the sweeping geopolitical changes they saw on the horizon that they missed what was happening in front of the medicine cabinets of America millions of times a day: individual women engaging in a small act that gave them more control over a vital, personal area of their lives. 

Katherine Mangu-Ward (kmw@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.