How do you imagine the 1950s? The stereotypical housewives in polka dot aprons endlessly cooking dinner for their grumpy, cigar smoking husbands?
The ‘50s didn’t seem that fun, but the times were a-changing. By 1969, Woodstock, The Beatles and a surge of tie dye were sweeping the nation. Social change in the US and the UK demanded equality for women and people of colour. Free love, psychedelics and the anti-war movement defined a generation.
And in the midst of all this, another revolution was taking place: the first contraceptive pill was empowering women to take control of their fertility. First introduced in the U.K in 1961, the pill made it possible for everyone to enjoy sex without worrying about unplanned pregnancy.
To celebrate the launch of Hana, a pill available over the counter via pharmacy consultation without having to wait for a doctor’s appointment, we are taking a deep dive into the sixties to celebrate a huge historic event: the decade the pill was born.
Why Was The Pill Such A Big Deal?
Contraception wasn’t invented in the ‘60s, but earlier forms were messy, not always safe and often relied on a man to use them. The 1960s ideal of free love was possible because women were finally free to separate sex from reproduction on their own terms. This enabled them to plan if, and when, they had children, thus freeing them to pursue further education and more influential careers outside of the home.
It seemed to work too: women in law and finance jumped from 2 to 15% and 9 to 39% respectively from the 1960s to the 1980s1.
We can’t say the pill was solely responsible, but it is clear that more women were pursuing their ambitions and joining careers which had previously been almost entirely male dominated.
Was The ‘60s Really That Groovy?
Were the 1960s a decade of love, social change and psychedelic colours – or were out-dated attitudes towards female sexuality more prominent than you’d think? While the ‘60s is often put on a pedestal as a time of freedom, change and acceptance, the reality wasn’t always so radical. Dr Anne Hanley*, a historian specialising in medicine and sexuality, tells us more about attitudes at the time.
“Some people saw the pill as a shortcut to moral decline and increased promiscuity among young people. There was this quite vitriolic campaign about protecting the innocence of young persons, specifically young, white middle class women. A lot of people also believed that only married women should have access to these contraceptive services.”
There was still a lot of shame and stigma assosicated with women deciding to take control of their fertility – let alone women who were having sex outside of marriage and millions of umarried women did not legally have access to the pill through most of the ‘60s. In the U.K it was only in 1967 that unmarried women could access the pill.[Ref: https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/a-brief-history-of-birth-control/]
Despite this, the arrival of the pill coincided with a slow shift towards greater economic, social and sexual equality for women. “It changed people’s views on sex before marriage,” Anne says, “what the introduction of the pill did, and certainly the introduction of access to the pills for unmarried women, means that marriage was no longer seen as a necessary first step in order to have a fulfilling sex life.”
“It may have stopped the need for so many shotgun marriages, where two people have sex and they might not really know each other or really want to start their lives together. Then the woman gets pregnant, and suddenly they have to get married. The invention of the pill means that isn’t necessarily the case anymore,” she continues.
We can speculate how the pill changed women’s lives and what the ‘60s were like, but the only way to really know what it was like is to talk to someone who was actually around at that time. Meet Theresa, who was a young woman when the pill was invented.
The Pill Through The Ages: What Was It Really Like? Theresa, 80, Windsor
I was in a convent school in Bow, London and I remember it was a complete shift. It was like an elephant in the room had been revealed. I remember it as a very controversial and landmark moment at the time.
You have to realise there were really very limited options for women. I was the youngest in a family of eight, had witnessed my mother giving birth, witnessed her lose children, as well as suffer from various complications.
I thought my future was to follow in my Mother’s footsteps. The pill gave us girls another option.
From where I was sitting growing up, a woman devoted her life to managing the amount of kids you had, and there was a period that it was normal and expected to have a large family. I mean, being the youngest child of eight, I thought my future was to follow in my Mother’s footsteps. The pill gave us girls another option.
It was the beginning of a real fight for equality. But you must remember, it wasn’t as though it was suddenly readily available, there were stipulations – you had to be married and you had to go to the Doctor, and you needed very good reasoning to access it from what I remember.
I wasn’t your typical 60s girl, I was happy listening to Cliff Richard, I wasn’t one of the Twiggy copycats, following the Beatles around screaming. While the pill opened up a new future for us young girls, it didn’t help safeguard single women. It was certainly a natural product of the sexual emancipation women were feeling at that time.
We knew it was a landmark moment, but if you were not married you couldn’t access it.
But, from what I remember, the overwhelming feeling was, it wasn’t straightforward to access. We knew it was a landmark moment, but if you were not married you couldn’t access it.
But it changed my future. I didn’t end up having eight children like my Mother. I was able to build a career as a legal secretary, get married and actually have children, a lot later, well into my 30s. I actually had my son when I was 46. You’ve certainly made me think, would my life have been different without it? I’d never thought about the pill like that before.
It was a moment that signalled change, but for me it was the beginning of that fight. It was up to society from here on in to challenge the old fashioned views and make people think differently towards women, sexuality and relationships. I’m just so happy it gave women choice and gave them a way to be in control (when it came to sex). If you think about it, it was a terribly risky business up until this point, even when married. That put a lot of pressure and anxiety on women that went unsaid. It wasn’t talked about. The pill meant you didn’t have to suffer in silence anymore.
While accessing the pill in the ‘60s certainly wasn’t as easy as it is today, Theresa’s story highlights how the pill gave women a choice. Now that they could take control over how many children they had – or if they had children at all – it enabled them to choose a life for themselves in a way that previous generations could not. It gave women the option and the freedom to explore their sexuality – without being defined by it.
The ‘60s certainly challenged a lot of Victorian ideas around female sexuality, but there was (and is) still a long way to go.
We hope Hana, a contraceptive pill available over the counter without prescription, will further improve access to contraception and challenge the stigma around female sexuality by giving many women and people with uteruses more agency and control over how they access their contraception. Thinking of trying Hana? Find out more about the consultation process and how you can buy Hana here.
Join us next time as we skip forwards to the ‘70s and ‘80s and discover how attitudes to contraception and sex continued to change.
We acknowledge that not everyone who can get pregnant is a woman and that some trans and non binary people may also use the contraceptive pill. As this article deals with earlier time periods in which gender was seen as binary, we are using the word ‘women’ in this context whilst also acknowledging it does not apply to everyone past or present who may use the contraceptive pill.
*Dr Anne Hanley does not endorse any pharmaceutical brands or products