Reinventing sex - Jonathan Eig on The Birth of The Pill

29 February 2016

In the winter of 1950, Margaret Sanger, then seventy-one, and who had campaigned for women's right to control their own fertility for five decades, arrived at a Park Avenue apartment building. She had come to meet a visionary scientist with a dubious reputation more than twenty years her junior. His name was Gregory Pincus.
These two, along with Katharine McCormick, a wealthy widow and philanthropist, and John Rock, a charismatic Catholic doctor from Boston, would go on to change women’s lives forever.
We spoke to Jonathan Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill, about a 1950s sexual revolution, feminism, and how far we’ve come.

Why was this a book and a subject that you wanted to tackle and how did you become involved with it?
Ten years ago, I heard a rabbi say that he thought the birth-control pill was the most important invention of the twentieth century. At first I thought he was nuts. But the more I contemplated it, the more I realized he had a fairly strong argument.

The pill did so much more than speed the sexual revolution. It dramatically improved the health and welfare of women around the world. It gave women opportunities to get more education and pursue better jobs. It changed dating. It changed marriage and family. It changed something fundamental about human dynamics.

Years after the rabbi’s remark, I was looking for an idea for a book and it occurred to me that I had no idea how the birth-control pill had come into existence, and I wondered if there might be a story there. With a little investigating, I realized the story behind the pill was just as interesting as the story of its consequences. I loved the notion that this important breakthrough was made by a group of rebels—radical feminists, scientists outside the academic community, and a Catholic physician who disagreed with the leaders of his church. How could such a ragtag bunch have pulled off something so monumentally important? I was hooked.
How did you begin your research? What did your research process evolve through different stages of the book?
The first thing I did was interview the daughter of Gregory Goodwin Pincus. Pincus was the key scientist behind the pill’s creation. His daughter had worked with him on the project and knew most of the important characters involved in the research. I also interviewed relatives of Dr. John Rock, as well as former colleagues of Rock and Pincus. Much of my time was spent in libraries, reviewing the letters, private papers, and scientific documents that belonged to Rock, Pincus, Margaret Sanger, and Katharine Dexter McCormick. They were prolific letter writers. Once I began to get a grasp on those massive collections of documents, I began filling in the color I needed for the story, reading old women’s magazines from the 1950s and interviewing women old enough to remember what life had been like in the days when women had extremely limited choices for controlling their fertility.
During your research, what surprised you the most?

The biggest surprise was that they pulled it off. The odds against this enterprise were astonishing. No one had ever attempted to produce and sell a pill for healthy people. What’s more, the dissemination of birth-control products remained illegal in much of the United States. The men and women working on this project had no government support, no university support, and virtually no corporate support. What’s more, the science behind the pill was completely untested. Their mission seemed doomed.

The other big surprise was just how they went about testing the hormones that would eventually comprise the pill. They had to be sneaky. They tried it first on women seeking treatment for infertility, then on patients who were in psychiatric hospitals, and then on slum-dwelling residents of Puerto Rico. These methods would be completely unacceptable by today’s ethical standards.
Do you think that all the historical characters in the book have been given enough credit for the role they played in women’s rights?
I think we have a tendency to take the pill for granted, to assume that reliable contraception has always been an option and that the pill somehow just happened, that women needed it and—poof—there it was. The truth is that it very nearly didn’t happen, and it probably never would have happened if these individuals had not been so bold. They believed the law was wrong and that the Catholic Church was wrong and that millions of men who thought a woman’s role was solely to be a mother were wrong. They believed that if they could give women a tool to control their bodies, the women pick up that tool and use it to build new lives and reshape the world around them.
There has been some discussion about ethics and breaches of law surrounding the way that the pill was initially tested - as an objective outsider, do you think the ends justified the means?
It’s easy to apply twenty-first century values when we discuss ethical breaches, but it isn’t always fair. Pincus and Rock and the others were operating well within the ethical standards of their day. They were insensitive at times. They took extraordinary risks. They showed little concern when women complained of side effects. But they believed that even if their experiments caused women to suffer, those same women would wind up suffering even more if they experience unwanted pregnancies. I won’t say if the ends justified the means, because I’m not one of the women was used in an experiment without her knowledge or consent. I will say that Pincus, Rock, Sanger, and McCormick made the calculation very deliberately; in their minds ends most certainly justified the means.
What difference do you think it would make if more men were openly feminists - would we be further towards equality?
I don’t care if a man calls himself a feminist. What matters is how he treats women. A man who doesn’t treat women as equals isn’t very smart and isn’t much of a man.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I’m a father of wonderful girls, the husband of a brilliant wife, the son of an inspirational mother. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t believe in the equality of women? Of course I’m a feminist.
Why do you think feminism is such a touchy subject, particular for young women who occasionally will not identify with the term?
Someone—I don’t know who—has turned “feminism” into a bad word, as if being a feminist requires hating men and wearing unflattering clothes. That’s ridiculous. I won’t speak for women who dislike the term “feminist.” As for men, if they’re threatened by the notion of equality for women, it’s probably a sign of their own weakness.
How far do you feel we’ve come as a society towards equality in general, including sexual equality, since the days of the invention of the pill?
We’ve come a long way. It’s tempting to think primarily about how the pill changed sex, how it made for swinging singles and wild orgies. It did, certainly, allow women (and men) to enjoy sex without the constant fear of pregnancy. But it did much more than that. It allowed them to control the size of their families, which meant they could better maintain their health, stay out of poverty, and feed their children. It meant they could go to college and start careers. Women are still not treated as fully equal to men, but they’re much better off than they were 60 years ago, and a big part of that change can be connected to the advent of the pill.
Through writing this book, how have your views towards the pill changed? What do you think it has added to society, or the way men and women interact with each other?
I was one of those people who took the pill for granted. It had always been there for me. I had never given much thought to how it might have changed the life of my mother or my wife or any of the other women I knew.

Telling this story—and traveling back in time to the 1950s in doing so, to see what women’s lives were like prior to the arrival of the pill—has made me more appreciative of where we are today. I’m thankful to live in a world in which women can control their own bodies. I’m thankful to have three children rather than nine. I’m thankful to have a wife who went to college and works a good job.

The other lesson for me is that change doesn’t happen by accident. The men and women who created the pill did it by force. They were willing to fight and take great risk for something they believed important. That’s an especially important message today, when some people remain intent on taking away women’s rights.
For the full, gripping account of the remarkable cultural, social and scientific journey taken by these determined men and women read Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of The Pill, out now in paperback and ebook.
'Rousing and involving ... a reminder of just how hard-fought, cobbled-together and compromise-ridden are the histories of some of the social structures we take for granted' - Independent on Sunday
Read an extract

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