The Pill and the Start of the Sexual Revolution
The author Pearl Buck in a 1968 Reader’s Digest article declared that “Everyone knows what The Pill is. It is a small object — yet its potential effect upon our society may be even more devastating than the nuclear bomb.”[i]
The changing ideologies on women’s sexuality raised public consciousness on sex as something more than reproductive behavior, diverged with the impacts of the Pill in 1968 and started an era of the rejection of traditional values of femininity and materialism.
From its development in the 1950s, the Pill caused complex social, medical and political controversies by challenging the norms of controlling women’s sexuality and rights to family planning. The contraceptive pill was very radical in nature and was emblematic of the changing sex culture and revolution that was to follow in the preceding years. Up until the early 1960s the Pill was only administered by a small number of doctors to married women[ii]. The control of oral contraceptives by physicians caused a major outcry to the policing of women’s sexuality and right to control when and if at all they wanted to be mothers.
There were a lot of contributing factors in the rise of women wanting access to the pill and other contraceptive methods as a way to stop unplanned pregnancies. The changing nature of women’s participation in the workforce post World War II and the rebellion of youth against authority structures with economic restructuring, gave opportunities for women to access the public sphere[iii]. The Pill allowed for new ideals of sexual assertion without the consequences of being forced into the cycle of motherhood. Linda Grant states that the pill “liberated women’s desire, turning women into sexual beings”[iv]. This revolutionary contraception allowed for women to control their own fertility and more broadly gain social and economic freedoms as they weren’t restricted to compulsory motherhood.
The Pill Push Back and Conflicting Moralities
The rise of conservatism culminated in 1968 as a means to challenge changing gender roles, the broadening use of contraceptives by women, and family planning by women. The lack of information and knowledge provided to women about their bodies posed serious health risks. The side effects weren’t available and published with the pill, which feed into the moral panics surrounding premarital sex and the rise of single women.
The Pill was seen by conservatives as a rejection of the traditional family structure and the increased promiscuity if women. Religious institutions saw this as immoral and an attack on procreation.
“Burial of Traditional Womanhood” and the Reshaping of Women’s Roles as Public Entities
On January 15 a coalition of women’s peace organizations marched against the limitations of true womanhood. The primary group, Women’s Strike for Peace, led the march along with approximately 5,000 women to attempt to regain social and political citizenship, without the expectations of motherhood and a dominate male figure[v]. Women’s liberation groups started organizing separate from the male dominated organizations in the youth movement in order to better reflect their specific needs.
This protest was to appeal the notions of True Womanhood that was a prominent ideology that streams back to Antebellum America and confined women to the private sphere. Religion and the ideal of the nuclear suburban family was circulated as a constructed memory practice to police women and to speak to the moral virtues of sexlessness and purity. Burying traditional womanhood made the personal into the political and attempted to pull women away from mainstream movements into a women’s based organization in order to raise a public consciousness against the patriarchal structures that was still oppressing women.
The Pill, Sexual Liberation and Popular Culture
The Pill’s impact can be seen in Loretta Lynn’s 1972 hit single “The Pill”, which incorporated the themes of liberation that the pill brought for women, especially in 1968 amidst conservatives that worked preserve the traditional role maternalism and family planning that was controlled by men. The song for the time was very radical and spoke to women’s bodily autonomy that came with these new modes of contraception and controls of fertility.
The Ongoing Impacts of the Sexual Revolution and the Pill on Contemporary America
Memory of 1968 and the 1960s more broadly, challenged societies systematic exclusion of women and the policies that actively harmed their bodily autonomy. The impacts of the universality of 1968 memory has allowed for an increase of knowledge of women’s bodies and the emergence of radical feminism allowed for the increase work force participation that removed women from their traditional position in the private and domesticated sphere. No longer was a woman totally subject as a dependent and a caregiver[vi].
The feminist model is still one that is projected into contemporary American memory to allow for a “self-reliance, independence and autonomy”[vii]. The usability of memory has resurfaced since 1968 in themes of progressive policy to advance women’s sexual liberation. In 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women attempted to address issues of the past. However, it left out a conversation around rights to “sexual freedom, sexual health services or sex education”[viii] and wasn’t endorsed by the United States. The International Planned Parent Hood Federation took the ideologies of the sexual revolution to instate a “Charter on Sexual and Reproductive Rights” which granted protections against risks of “genital mutilation, forced pregnancy, sterilization, unwanted sex, or unwanted pregnancy” [ix]. The World Association of Sexology has emerged in the professional realm and have identified sexual rights of a woman that include: rights to sexual pleasure, sexual freedom and a comprehensive sexual education”[x].
50 Years on
In retrospective assessment the rise of the Pill reached a point of moral panic within the year of 1968, an effect that still has some what stalled the process of the Sexual Revolution in contemporary America. Sex being a topic that is often reserved for privacy and not discussed openly, shows the effects of partial memory. The influences of the memory of the sex revolution and the impacts of the pill continue as a site of contestation. The issue of an abstinence only sex education voids ideas of a comprehensive sex program that includes a discussion of contraceptives and women’s bodies. This continues to be controversial issue that is reflected back to the sexual moral dilemmas of 1968.
[i] Public Broadcasting Service, 1996-2018, American Experience, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-and-sexual-revolution/.
[ii] Public Broadcasting Service. (1996-2008).
[iii] John Levi Martin (1996) Structuring the sexual revolution, pp 105-151.
[iv] Martin (1996) Structuring the sexual revolution.
[v] Carol Hanisch. (2018).Commemorating 50 years of “Sisterhood is Powerful”, http://meetinggroundonline.org/the-burial-of-traditional-womanhood-%E2%80%A2-january-15-1968/.
[vi] Martin S. Weinberg, Rochelle Ganz Swensson and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith .(1983). Social Problems,Vol. 30, No. 3, Thematic Issue: Technique and the Conduct of Life , pp. 312-324
[vii] Weinberg. (1983). Rochelle Ganz Swensson and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith Social Problems, pp. 320.
[viii] Leonore Tiefer .(2002). The Emerging Global Discourse of Sexual Rights,Journal of Sex &Marital Therapy, p440.
[ix] Tiefer. (2002). The Emerging Global Discourse of Sexual Rights,Journal of Sex &Marital Therapy, p442.
[x] Tiefer. (2002). The Emerging Global Discourse of Sexual Rights,Journal of Sex &Marital Therapy, p443.
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Rosen, Ruth. (1989). “The Day They Buried “Traditional Womanhood”: Women and the Politics of Peace Protest”, Vietnam Generation: Vol. 1: No. 3, Article 18.
TIME Magazine. (1967). Vol 89, http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19670407,00.html.
Watkins, Elizabeth. (1969).“Can I stop taking the pill now?” advertisement, printed in On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970, un-paginated.
Watkins, Elizabeth. (1963).“Cigars, cigarettes, birth control pills…” advertisement, printed in On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970, un-paginated.
YouTube. (2010). Birth Control Milestone. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2qlu0u6gs8 [Accessed 25 Apr. 2018].
YouTube. (2009). loretta lynn “the pill”. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DcdONaKSQM [Accessed 25 Apr. 2018].