Forty years of the pill: a letter of thanks

‘There’s gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill… Oh daddy don’t you worry now cause momma’s got the pill’—the words of the singer Loretta L

‘There’s gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill… Oh daddy don’t you worry now cause momma’s got the pill’—the words of the singer Loretta Lynn in her 1974 song, ‘The Pill.’

In the track, Lynn tells the story of a wife who was upset about her husband getting her pregnant year after year, but her fortunes have been transformed thanks to the pill. It is no doubt autobiographical—Lynn herself has 6 children, 2 of whom were born before she was even 19.

‘The Pill’ takes a somewhat comic, somewhat all too real look at what has been described as ‘the greatest scientific invention of the 20th century.’ So as we celebrate 40 years of the pill being prescribed to single women, let’s take our own look at this tiny but oh so powerful tablet.

Changing times

You may know it as Evra, Sunya, Yasmin or Microgynon. It might be a three week cycle or a 12 week cycle. Maybe it’s a 21 day thing, with 7 days off, or maybe it’s all 30 days, with 7 days of dummies. And does it combine the hormones estrogen and progestin? Or does it just contain progestin?

No matter the brand name, the cycle length, the number you take monthly, or the makeup, the pill serves one main function—to stop the creation of babies. By keeping the ovaries from releasing eggs and causing changes in the lining of the uterus and the cervical mucus to stop sperm from joining eggs, the pill, when taken correctly, can offer a woman an almost 100 per cent guarantee of not falling pregnant (the pill is over 99 per cent effective and the mini pill is 99 per cent effective).

Owing to its success rate, the pill is the most commonly used contraceptive method world over, followed by the condom and the withdrawal method. Currently around 100 million women worldwide take the pill, 3.5 million of those women in the UK (roughly one third of all women of reproductive age).

The first ever use of the pill dates back to 1956 in Puerto Rico. 5 years later, in 1961, the pill was introduced in the UK through the NHS. Upon its UK introduction, it was mainly prescribed to older women who already had children and did not want anymore, as the British government did not want to be seen to be promoting or encouraging what was then called ‘free love.’

This all changed in 1974 when, in a controversial decision at the time, family planning clinics were given the green light to prescribe single women with the pill.

Making the pill available to a much broader demographic paved the way for a number of huge changes, both medically and socially.

The whole definition of a relationship was completely transformed. It liberated both sexes, giving women control over their own reproductive choices and meaning that they no longer had to rely heavily on men for contraception.

The landscape of marriage was overturned. Now that women had more control over when they had children, the implication that if a woman were to become pregnant, the man would marry her, was no longer. Marriages were delayed and the incidences of shotgun marriages were a lot less.

A different role

For the first time the idea of partnerships and children were separated. In the early 1960s there were fewer than 1 in 100 adults under 50 cohabiting – this figure now stands at 1 in 6.

Essentially what the pill gave (and continues to give women) was the ability to control fertility without sacrificing sexual relationships. This means that sexual activity was divorced from reproduction, allowing women to make long term education and career plans and giving a new meaning and purpose to marriage.

Marriage was no longer something that women fell into through pregnancy, or something that they had to choose over a career – it was finally given the opportunity to be an agreement based on love and mutual satisfaction, both sexual and otherwise.

In April 1967, Time Magazine featured the pill as its ‘cover girl.’ We didn’t quite know then the incredible effect it would have. Now it’s definitely safe to say that the pill has become such an important cover girl for so many of our lives.

Yes, it has its faults: ‘It’ making my boobs so sore,’ ‘It’s made me put on 6 lbs,’ ‘It’s making me so moody.’

But what it’s about essentially is finding the right fit for you, finding the right pill for the right women, physically and mentally. And if you can do that, it liberates you in so many ways. So, please raise your glasses, to our trusty cover girl of the past 40 years.

Dear pill, for all that you’ve done and continue to do for us, we thank and salute you.

Have your say on the role of the pill in the comments section below.

Image (under Creative Commons licence): Beria Lima @ Wikimedia Commons