The Pill 50 Years Later

An article published today in TIME magazine explores that little medication with which so many of us are intimately familiar: the pill. The piece is TIME’s cover story, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of the pill for contraceptive use. But the fact that we celebrate the 50th anniversary of approval, rather than invention, kind of says it all. The pill has been under ideological fire since the first tiny tablet hit a woman’s palm. And the impact it’s had on women’s autonomy and freedom has been – as decades have passed – nearly equal to the fear (and subsequent restriction) it’s instilled in those who believe in curtailing reproductive rights.

TIME’s Executive Editor Nancy Gibbs takes her time exploring and illuminating the contradictions of the pill, particularly the perceived impact – or lack thereof – it’s had on the family structure, romantic relationships, and women’s freedom. She does an excellent job of addressing the myriad factors that affected women’s lives during the advent of the pill, and is careful not to put too much stock in the medication itself. “If there were no opportunities out there, it would just be another contraceptive but not revolutionary,” Gibbs quotes Elaine Tyler May, author of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation. “The revolutionary potential of the Pill could never have been achieved without the opportunities that came about because of women’s activism.”

That activism has taken us up to the present moment, when the fight for coverage of birth control – including abortion – nearly stopped health care reform in its tracks. Despite its safety and effectiveness, only in last month’s sweeping health care reform bill has the pill been recognized as worth greater coverage for the millions of American women who use it. As Jennifer L. Pozner noted in a piece published around the advent of Viagra, erections have for years been treated with greater respect by insurance companies than a woman’s right to control her reproductive health:

“Nearly half of approximately 300,000 men who seek renewed sexual vigor via Viagra each week are being fully or partially reimbursed by their health insurers…Only 33 percent of large group health plans cover the birth control pill. Other contraceptive methods are even less financially accessible. Is it any wonder that women of childbearing age pay 68% more in out-of-pocket medical expenses than their male counterparts?”

Just last weekend during our Progressive Women’s Voices training, WMC Board Member and former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt discussed how the massive discrepancy between coverage for Viagra and birth control actually helped underline the need for the latter. Planned Parenthood and other organizations had been trying for years to get greater insurance for the pill, but it wasn’t until Viagra came on the scene and was almost immediately covered by insurance companies, that Feldt and others were able to harness the controversy and generate a real media discussion. In raising awareness about the hypocrisy of insurance companies, they were ultimately able to force a significant shift in insurance coverage for birth control.

In short, it’s not just about the pill – it’s about the payment. Women’s Media Center has been tackling this issue, particularly within our campaign for reproductive rights,, which AlterNet listed in their Top 10 Defining Feminist Moments of 2009. We’ve highlighted the need for birth control coverage in health care reform, and WMC President Jehmu Greene was asked to comment on it, underlining the “landmark legislation” that gives women access to birth control. The 50th anniversary of the pill’s FDA approval might be something to celebrate, but did it have to take this long to get greater access to insurance for it? Better late than never…if half a century qualifies as simply “late.”

Yes, she founded this organization, and she’s a personal hero, but I’ve got to stop for a moment and quote Gloria Steinem, who Gibbs quotes throughout her article, and who forecast the ideological war generated by birth control. “The real danger of the contraceptive revolution,” Steinem wrote in 1962, “may be the acceleration of woman’s role change without any corresponding change of man’s attitude toward her role.”

I’d expand “man’s attitude” to that of all those against reproductive freedom; the pill is small, safe, and effective. It doesn’t end pregnancies, but prevents them. It’s easy to administer, and inexpensive to produce. The only issue seems to be that, with great help from those like Steinem, the pill revolutionized the independence of women. It’s hard coming to terms with the idea that this particular consequence of the pill should have made it a battleground for half a century, but yeah, Steinem called it.

Watch Gibbs discussing the significance of the pill, including an always-welcome Loretta Lynn reference:

The Women’s Media Center is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media.