The Birth Control Movement, The Sexual Revolution, and How We Got Where We Are Now

The birth control movement and sexual revolution were pretty important moments in feminist history.  In women’s history.  They changed the trajectory of women’s possibilities forever in the United States, and in other countries that they have impacted.  And they started in the 1950’s, with the push to legalize birth control.

The FDA originally approved birth control for sale and consumption in the United States in 1960.  One of the pill’s main advocates was the now-famous Margaret Sanger, who went on to found the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, an organization that remains important in the promotion of sexual health services and family planning today.  Sanger’s belief was that women needed the ability to regulate their own fertility, and her organization was one of the first to actively promote the use of contraception in the United States.

It’s worth noting, however, that this movement had a darker beginning.  Sanger was a noted eugenicist, pushing for the poor to reproduce less.  In reality, it was the uneducated that Sanger felt should not reproduce, but the fact remains, she was a eugenicist.  She also couched her arguments in the rhetoric of the times, which focused on the need to curb global population growth to prevent a resource management disaster, which many at the time feared was coming.  It was a very Malthusian way to look at the issue, but it was in fact the way that the issue was being discussed when Sanger was actively working on it.

The movement picked up speed during the 1960’s.  In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswald v Connecticut that married couples should be able to access contraception.  The sexual revolution started to gain momentum, and social attitudes about sex started to shift in the late sixties and early seventies.  The introduction and promotion of birth control techniques altered the risk calculus around extramarital sex, which in turn led to the beginnings of the changes in sexual culture that we’ve seen pulled through to today.

Here’s the thing I’m not sure everyone realizes about birth control: it changed the scope of possibilities for women even if they, personally, were not on the pill.  That’s probably something worth recognizing today.  This happened in a couple of ways:

  1. Birth control altered the decision-making calculus about when to start a family.  This fundamentally altered the marriage market, meaning it reduced the trade-offs women had to make with regards to getting married and starting a family if she also wanted to pursue a career, which in turn made it more viable to go for higher education or start a career before starting a family.
  2. Birth control also helped to alter employers’ perceptions of women.  To this day, this change has not been fully achieved, but birth control marked the beginnings of employers being able to, and therefore more willing to, hire women without the fear that they would abruptly get pregnant and quit.  Women were able to present themselves as serious about their careers and have that be believed.  Even if this has not yet been fully realized in the workplace and women today still face hiring discrimination or lower wages, the fact remains that they may never have gotten a foot in the door in certain fields without this.
  3. Women were better able to transition into fields as more women took jobs in them.  This may sound a little silly, but the reality is that the first wave of women to push their way into law, or medicine, or engineering probably had a pretty rough time of it.  As more women have been able to push into these fields they have (to some extent-~-we know there are still serious problems in the STEM fields as well as in politics) been able to make those fields more woman-friendly so to speak.  The saying we often use is “you cannot be what you cannot see”.  Birth control allowed women to pave the way into these fields for other women by allowing them to prioritize their education and careers as they saw fit, which in turn made it easier for other women, regardless of whether or not they were on the pill, to get into those fields.

That’s a lot for a couple of little pink pills to achieve.  And they’ve done a lot more around for women around the world.  Birth control fundamentally alters the meaning of sex as a means for both reproduction and domination by giving women the ability to access their agency and make some sort of choice regarding the outcomes of sexual encounters.  In the developing world, this has been particularly meaningful.  Birth control has also helped to keep women in school long enough to finish secondary school and even college, which has altered the field of possibilities for women who may otherwise have never had these opportunities.

I really don’t know how else to say this: birth control has been, quite simply, one of the most influential inventions of the twentieth century.  It altered the gendered patterns of organization in our society and changed gender roles in a fundamental way by enabling women to control their reproductive processes.  Today, the family planning movement is focused less on population control and substantially more on reproductive health and reproductive rights: it’s a movement focuses on empowering women and families to make important decisions that shape their futures.

So when you look at how far we’ve come, remember: we have fought a lot of hard battles, but reproductive rights made it possible to get where we are today.  They matter, and they’ll continue to matter.  The women of the last half century worked hard to get us access to the tools we need to make our own choices about our lives, and it’s a battle worth continuing to fight.

Happy Women’s History Month.

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~ by Randi Saunders on March 15, 2013.

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