There’s no such thing as the Car or the Shoe or the Laundry Soap. But everyone knows the Pill, whose FDA approval 50 years ago rearranged the furniture of human relations in ways that we’ve argued about ever since.
This weekend, I ran across an article on Time.com memorializing the 50th birthday of the birth control pill. While not talked about in much detail during our readings, giving women authority over their reproductive system had dramatic consequences for heterosexual sex lives and the demographics of the American family. While such a shift in social attitudes did not occur immediately, by the 1970s, couples were marrying later and having fewer children, while women were increasingly interested in pursuing careers outside the home.
As with any major social change, the Pill was not universally accepted. The Vatican strongly rejected the use of any form of artificial birth control with the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, and many African-American leaders in the Black Power movement equated the use of birth control to “black genocide.” Despite opposition, however, two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control by 1970, and many black women fought for access to contraception. As the Time article states, “when contraception was put under a woman’s control, it put many other things under her control as well.” This newfound sense of power might very well have appealed to women without regard to race or religion.
Looking at my own family history, it’s not hard to see the impact of birth control on families. My paternal grandfather was one of eleven children, and my maternal great-grandparents had four children in five years (if my great-grandfather hadn’t been killed while my great-grandmother was pregnant with their fourth, I’m guessing there would have been many more siblings). The trend continued even into my parents’ generation; after my maternal grandfather died, my grandmother remarried a widower with nine children from his first marriage. Granted, coming from a Catholic background, my data might be a little skewed, but families of that size are nowhere near as common as they used to be. Out of all my (step-)aunts and (step-)uncles, no one has more than four children. I’m one of two. While I have no plans to go around asking about birth control usage at the next family get-together, it’s clear that birth control had a major impact on American families, even moderately conservative ones like mine.
I find the quote that begins this post (and the Time article) incredibly interesting. We can simply call the Pill “the Pill,” and everyone knows what pill we’re talking about. I’m hard-pressed to think of another product that has that degree of recognition. Given our fascination with the Gosselins, Duggars, and other so-called “mega-families,” the introduction of series like MTV’s “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” and the ever-present debate over the extent and type of sex education in schools, it will be interesting to see if and how use of the Pill changes over the next several decades.
 Nancy Gibbs, “The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox,” Time website, 22 April 2010.