The Pill Through The Ages – The ’70s and ’80s

Welcome to the 1970s!
Attitudes to the contraceptive pill in the ‘70s
For Christine, 66, from Swindon, the ‘70s was a time of positive change and female empowerment
Pat, 67, from Australia, remembers that stigma assosicated with sex before marriage
Moving onto the 1980s
Women Masturbate Too
For Helen, 62, from Hastings, female empowerment was in full swing

To celebrate the launch of Hana, a contraceptive pill available to buy over the pharmacy counter with a pharmacy consultation and without a doctor’s appointment, we are exploring 6 decades of the pill to see how it has impacted society since it first became available in 1961.

Until 1967, the contraceptive pill was only licensed for married women and some doctors would even require the husband’s consent before they would prescribe it.

Compare that with today, where women and people with uteruses have the choice to buy a contraceptive pill without having to wait for a doctor’s appointment. All we need to do now is have a consultation with a pharmacist to determine if our chosen contraception is suitable.

We’ve certainly come a long way! To see just how far, join us as we go back in time to the 1970s and 1980s.

Welcome to the 1970s!

At first glance, the 1970s seem bleak. Rising unemployment, inflation and a lack of fuel led to strikes in England which resulted in the nation adopting a ‘three day week’ – where non essential businesses were only allowed to operate three days a week and pubs were suspended after 10:30 pm.

The winter of 1978-79 became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ because of seemingly endless strikes in the U.K as a result of poor pay conditions. Meanwhile, the US war against Vietnam raged on.

But the 1970s was also a vibrant decade. It was the decade of punk music, the green party (known as the ecology party from 1975-1985) and the first U.K gay pride rally. Walkmans and VHS tapes – Spotify and Netflix’s ancestors – were invented in the ‘70s and helped introduce the world to Kate Bush and David Bowie.

The 1970s were also a good decade for gender equality. The UK equal pay act of 1970 made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender. The contraceptive pill became available for unmarried women in the US in 1972. Abortion became legal in the US 1973 (it had been legal in the U.K since 1968) and gave women the legal right to safely choose to end their pregnancy. There was still a long way to go , but the equality train was crawling out of the station.

Attitudes to the contraceptive pill in the ‘70s

When it came to the subject of sex, most women used to feel embarassed, anxious and constantly worried.

Do you ever feel so happy that the pill exists that you just have to write a song about it? That’s exactly what Loretta Lynn did. Her 1975 song ‘The Pill’ tells the story of a wife who was sick of getting pregnant year after year and celebrates taking control of her life now she has the pill.

All these years I’ve stayed at home
While you had all your fun
And every year that’s gone by
Another baby’s come

There’s a gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill

This song was controversial at the time and was even held back for three years by the record label, but it led to a surge in awareness of the pill – particularly in more conservative, rural parts of the USA. Loretta wrote this song herself. As a mother of six, four of whom were born before she was 20 years old, she knew what she was talking about!

For Christine, 66, from Swindon, the ‘70s was a time of positive change and female empowerment

“I worked in the music industry. It was a fabulous time. It felt terribly glamorous, every day felt like a party looking back. Freedom for women was well in force and it felt like an incredibly important period to be a woman. Things were genuinely changing.

I remember because I read a lot, the literature and even the tone in writing changed. The reference points began to change. In the past when it came to the subject of sex, most women used to feel embarrassed, anxious and constantly worried.

I’d heard stories about women even sharing an old wedding ring to get the pill, that’s all they looked at in those days. So the whole process wasn’t perfect, and we were also fighting back on the stigma front and taking control. But it really wasn’t straightforward. I have to be honest, before the pill women were anxious. And if I’m allowed to say it, we were all anxious about the thought of getting an abortion. We feared it.”

Pat, 67, from Australia, remembers that stigma assosicated with sex before marriage

You didn’t tell people you were on the pill. It was not something unmarried women admitted to taking.

“I was about 17 when I got the pill. This was around 1970. They had just changed the law so unmarried women could get it. I did not want to get pregnant before marriage. In my day, that was a shame you didn’t get over. Older women didn’t really discuss the pill, not with me. It was still a bit of a no-no. I’d heard about single women’s parents being rung up and told that they were trying to get the pill.

At church, we used to collect food and take it to the Carolyn Chisholm girls home. They were ‘bad’ girls, who got pregnant and had to give their babies up for adoption. You didn’t tell people you were on the pill. It was not something unmarried women admitted to taking. This was over 50 years ago and I think the pill is the norm now – men should have one as well!”

Moving onto the 1980s

These stories highlight how attitudes to the pill were slow to change – but change they did. As the 70s came to an end, a feeling of sexual liberation was marking the start of the 1980s. Get your leg warmers on, we’re going to the’80s It might’ve been 40 years ago, but leotards, jean jackets and high waisted jeans keep coming back into fashion. From Black Mirror’s ‘San Junipero’ and Stranger Things to dubious fashion revivals, the ‘80s is still very much alive in our hearts and minds.

In the ‘80s, the AIDs crisis had a huge impact on attitudes to sexual health, where seemingly healthy young people were suddenly becoming seriously ill. While first believed to only be passed on by gay men to other gay men, scientists quickly realised HIV and AIDs do not discriminate.

The AIDS virus added a new, deadly risk to having sex – pregnancy was no longer the only issue. By 1995, complications from AIDS was the leading cause of death for adults 25 to 44 years old3.

This changed in 1997 with the invention of new, more successful treatments. Today, people with HIV can lead long, healthy lives and even make the virus untransmittable through the use of antiviral drugs, but in the ‘80s this was still a long way away. The AIDS pandemic made people more cautious about casual sex because the stakes were suddenly a lot higher, which led to changing attitudes around condoms.

Women Masturbate Too

In terms of female empowerment, the ‘80s had a lot to offer. Women taking control was seen more often in popular culture.

The film 9 to 5 starring Dolly Parton sees three secretaries take on their sexist boss. Cyndi Lauper 1984 hit ‘She Bop’ had people jumping to a song which openly celebrated and normalised female masturbation. And we can’t forget that the ‘80s introduced the U.K’s first female prime minister.

For Helen, 62, from Hastings, female empowerment was in full swing

The 80s felt like a real step forward for feminism, and the normalisation of contraception was a huge part of that.

“The 80s was a great moment in some ways for women. You were getting more women in high-powered jobs, we had a female Prime Minister – it felt for me, like the beginning of proper parity,” she says.

Newer generations of the contraceptive pill were created in the ‘80s and continued to help women shape their lives on their own terms by empowering them to decide when and if they would have children. [Ref:] While there was still stigma associated with women taking the pill, the conversation was opening up.

“The 80s felt like a real step forward for feminism, and the normalisation of contraception was a huge part of that. The pill felt like something that was part of the norm for women. It felt it was more normal and accepted, but still wasn’t 100% accepted. It became a conversation that most women were having, and I’d say most of the women I knew were taking it,” Helen explains.

From the pill just being made available to unmarried women in 1970 to women and people with uteruses being able to purchase over the counter without a prescription today, we’ve certainly come a long way in 40 years! Find out more about what Hana is here.

Join us next time as we explore the ‘90s and 2000s and how attitudes to the pill continued to evolve – could it BE any more exciting?

The Pill Through The Ages 2010 To Now

A Decade of Protest: Girls Just Want To Have Fun(damental Rights)
Contraceptive Choices
The Future Of The Pill

Many Millennials, Zillennials and Gen Z-ers won’t know what it was like to first access the pill in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But now we can claim a first of our own. As of 2021, we will be the first generation who are able to get the contraceptive pill over the pharmacy counter and online without a prescription.

Despite the fact that no other medicine in history has been so iconic that it has become known simply as ‘The Pill’, it hasn’t always been so straightforward for people to access. That’s where Hana comes in. You don’t need a doctor’s appointment to access Hana, you just need to answer some questions for a pharmacist to assess that this medicine is suitable for you.

To celebrate the launch of Hana, a progestogen-only pill available to buy without a prescription, we are looking back over the history of the contraceptive pill and speaking to people who were there. We’re up to the final chapter in the series, join us to look back over the last decade from 2010 to the present day!

A Decade of Protest: Girls Just Want To Have Fun(damental Rights)

Time to throw out your low-rise bootcut jeans and shimmy into a pair of high-waisted skinnies! Get rid of your tweezers too, we are praying to the facial hair gods to forgive us for our over plucking sins of the nineties and noughties because bushy brows are back big time. We don’t watch TV anymore, we stream and we spend more time typing on our smartphones than talking IRL.

As our attention spans got shorter, our patience did too. The 20-Teens, like most adolescents, stomped onto the scene and demanded change.

Change was driven by women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour, and other marginalised people taking on the male, pale and stale status quo. With the internet providing more opportunities to connect, educate and organise, there has been a huge surge in activism.

This decade saw some huge political moments for gender equality and reproductive rights. In 2017 women, trans and non-binary people (and allies!) marched on the White House in the biggest day of protest in United States history. In the same year, the #MeToo and Times Up movements exposed widespread sexual violence and unmasked some of the powerful perpetrators who tried to hide behind closed doors. After historic campaigns across Ireland, the 8th Amendment was repealed in 2019, giving Irish women legal access to abortions (52 years after England, Scotland and Wales).

In popular culture, representations of female sexuality became a lot more progressive. The film Easy A came out in 2010 and was a breath of fresh air for teen movies. Rumours go around high school that Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) has lost her virginity (Shock! Horror! Teenagers having sex!), Olive refuses to be shamed and instead charges guys to pretend they’ve slept together and therefore raise their street cred. It’s not perfect, but it highlights the inequality between boys and girls, how hard it can be to come out at school and depicts sex positive parenting.

Meanwhile, musicians like Beyonce, Lizzo and Cardi B set examples of women owning their sexuality. Whether your feminism is more ‘Who Run The World (Girls)’ or ‘WAP’, both are examples of a woman making waves in a typically male-dominated industry. Others got it wrong, and were rightly #cancelled. Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was released in 2013 and was panned for being a misogynistic anthem. Student unions across the U.K. banned the song from appearing on playlists.

Contraceptive Choices

Today, people have a wider set of contraceptive choices than ever before, and even more ways of accessing them. By the year 2010, the contraceptive pill had been around for almost 50 years.

Our sister brand ellaOne, the most effective morning after pill*, became available to buy in the U.K. without prescription in 2015. In 2018 ellaOne launched the #MyMorningAfter campaign to smash the stigma around emergency contraception, and hundreds of people shared their #MyMorningAfter stories.

Their experiences show that too many people still feel judged for enjoying their sex life and making a responsible contraceptive choice. If there’s anything we’ve learned from ellaOne’s campaign, and Hana’s History Of The Pill series, it is that historically contraception has been subject to moral judgement.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear from women in 2021 who feel confident and empowered by their contraception. Chanelle, 22, told us: “I have never felt shame or embarrassment about the pill, it’s such a common topic of discussion.”

Because the pill is more frequently discussed amongst friends, colleagues or even online and with more educational resources available online, people feel they have more choice over the contraception they use and more access to information.

Chanelle tried a few different pills before she found one that worked well for her: “The first pill I tried gave me really bad migraines, so I tried a few different pills before I found the right one for me. I’ve been on this pill for about 4 years now and I’ve had no issues. I am happy with this pill. It can take time to find one that works for you, but there are so many options out there – you are bound to find something that works for you!”

Another woman we spoke to, Natasha, 26, had a specific set of medical circumstances that meant the progestogen-only pill was suitable for her. She says: “I spoke to my GP who asked about my family history. I explained that my mum had an oestrogen positive form of breast cancer, which meant that the combined pill would not be appropriate for me, and I was prescribed a progestogen only pill containing desogestrel.”

Natasha continues: “I’ve now been on my pill for 6 years and I really like it. Overall the minor drawbacks (for me: spotting and some hormone fluctuations) are far outweighed by the benefits.”


The Future Of The Pill

It’s taken 60 years for society to become comfortable with the idea that women and people with uteruses should be free to go out and have (safe) sex with multiple people, fall in love with them OR never call them again, travel the world, have a top career – basically do whatever they want to, without worrying about an unplanned pregnancy.

We’ve come a long way since women in the 1970s wore fake wedding rings when asking for their pill prescription. While those who were born in the ‘80s and ‘90s may not have known some of the hardships of those who told us their experiences of accessing contraception in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there are still plenty of areas where people today are pushing for wider access. Being able to access the contraceptive pill over the counter without a prescription, is an important step in that direction.

We’ve learned about the history of the pill, so here’s the future.

At Hana, we believe that modern contraception means a pill that is more convenient to access. Hana is available from a pharmacy near you, or online from HanaDirect. All you need to do is have a consultation with a pharmacist to see if Hana is right for you.

You can even subscribe to Hana Direct, so you’ll be reminded when your pill supply is running low and get sent a prompt to confirm your next order if Hana is still suitable for you.

If you want to find out more about Hana, check out this page.


The Pill Through The Ages – A New Millenium

Could we BE any more sex positive? Probably, but we’ll still be there for you
For Yasmin, 44, London, the ‘90s were a time of positive change
I went to the year 2000!

Imagine a world without the internet, where mobile phones have buttons and where photos were for physical photo albums, not the gram. That was what the 1990s were like, but they wouldn’t stay that way. By 2010, most of the things we now take for granted had been invented and life would never be the same.

To celebrate the launch of Hana, a progestogen only pill available to purchase over the counter following a pharmacy consultation and without a doctor’s appointment, we are taking a deep dive through history to explore 60 years of the pill.

From the groovy ‘60s to the neon ‘80s, we’ve seen how attitudes to the pill have developed over the years. Join us as we carry on with our journey to the ‘90s and noughties and reveal how attitudes to sex, female empowerment and the pill continued to develop into the new millenium.

Could we BE any more sex positive? Probably, but we’ll still be there for you

Did you know that when the pilot of Friends was tested on a live audience, the producers were worried that people wouldn’t like Monica because she slept with a guy on the first date?

Luckily the audience said they couldn’t care less and Monica was allowed to express her sexuality without shame. Friends wasn’t the only show testing the waters in the ‘90s. In 1998, Sex and the City proudly presented the lives of four single 30 somethings who enjoyed sex – and weren’t afraid to ask.

Whether men liked it or not, women were on the pathway to be equals.

At the same time, TV shows like Buffy were redefining femininity and showing that girls could be whatever they wanted: like a vampire fighting badass in an awesome leather jacket! The ‘90s didn’t always get it right – sometimes they got it incredibly wrong! – but people were starting to redefine what it meant to be a woman and what was socially acceptable for women to do.

For Yasmin, 44, London, the ‘90s were a time of positive change

“We were genuinely moving forward. We’d had a female PM. More women were in prominent positions of society. There was new wave cultural revival brewing, you could smell it. Almost a second sexual revolution. Whether men liked it or not, women were on the pathway to be equals,” she says.

Far from being a shameful secret or something that was only acceptable for married women, the contraceptive pill was significant in the ‘90s because it wasn’t significant. It was just a part of life.

“In the 90s you were taught the short history of contraception and the quite frankly backward and antiquated way that women were treated in society. By the 90s, there was a belief that this was firmly behind us. Taking the pill was the complete norm.” Yasmin says.

I went to the year 2000!

As the ‘90s drew to a close, the world was speeding into a new digital age and a new millennium. The millennium bug was meant to destroy the world on New Year’s Day 2000 (spoiler: it didn’t happen) but in many ways things were just getting started.

The 2000s saw the internet take off in a big way. Connected through MSN messenger, we could suddenly communicate instantly with friends all over the world. Bebo gave way to Myspace which was savagely replaced by Facebook. Low rise jeans, Juicy Couture and oversized sunglasses were all the rage. What a time to be alive!

In some ways, there has never been a better time to be a woman. Far from being sexually repressed, female sexuality was loudly celebrated. Unfortunately, it was also exploited. Lad culture, sexism in the music and film industry and the idea that most women were shoe obsessed and desperate to get married was rife.

In terms of contraception, women and people with uteruses now had a lot of options and information at their fingertips. Sex education wasn’t always doing its job, but the rise of the internet helped young people get answers without having to ask their mum.

With more options than ever before, women and people with uteruses now had the freedom that previous generations could have only dreamed of. You could wear what you wanted, do what you wanted and be what you wanted. Life wasn’t – and still isn’t – perfect, but it was light years away from having to prove you were married before you could take the pill.

Come back soon, because next time we are bringing you back to the present so we can reflect on how much has changed. Like this article? Share it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Want to find out more about Hana? Find out more about what it is and how it works.


  1. Our Bodies Our Selves

The pill through the ages – The journey to the ‘60s

Why Was The Pill Such A Big Deal?
Was The ‘60s Really That Groovy?
The Pill Through The Ages: What Was It Really Like? Theresa, 80, Windsor

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 pill2.

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

The history of the progesterone-only contraceptive pill

Where Do Babies Come From?
Weasel Testicles, Anyone?
The Search For A Birth Control Pill
The legacy of the pill
How Hana Made History

In 2021, history was made as progestogen-only contraceptive pills containing desogestrel became available to buy over the counter without a prescription. Hana is one of these pills!

The pill has been available in the UK for almost 60 years and compared to 1961 when you had to prove you were married to access the pill, we’ve come a very long way.

It’s about time that women and people who can get pregnant are free to choose their contraception and to get it on their terms, without having to wait for a doctor’s appointment. You will be asked some questions for your pharmacist to check if your chosen progestogen-only pill is right for you.

To celebrate, we’re taking a deep dive into other significant events in the history of contraception to show just how far we’ve come. From discovering how babies are made to the invention of the pill and the birth of Hana, read on to discover how Hana made history.

Where Do Babies Come From?

For as long as there have been babies, people have been trying to not have babies. The problem was: our ancestors didn’t know how babies were made.

People realised pretty quickly that penetrative intercourse (aka P in V sex) could lead to the person with the V getting pregnant, but it wasn’t until 1875 that they figured out how pregnancy worked.

To get pregnant, someone with a vagina has to be ovulating. Ovulation (aka release of an egg from the ovaries) usually occurs once a month roughly in the middle of the menstrual cycle, although that varies from person to person.

If someone with a penis ejaculates into your vagina around the time that you’re ovulating, the sperm can fuse with the egg to create an embryo which then moves to the uterine wall and can develop into a foetus.

This is all common knowledge now, but how babies are made was the unanswered question that baffled the scientific world for centuries.

Ever been with a guy who lept up straight after sex to stare at his sperm under a microscope? That was the situation Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s wife found herself in when Leeuwenhoek studied his seed and concluded it was made up of ‘tiny little creatures’ which ‘moved like eels’1.

This sparked a ‘spermist’ vs ‘ovarist’ debate, where spermists argued the eel-like creatures in sperm were the babies – little, miniature humans swimming to their new home. Ovarists, on the other hand, thought babies came from the eggs in female ovaries1.

Spermists thought babies came from sperm and ovarists thought they were made in eggs, but for centuries no one put two and two together. It wasn’t until 1875 when German scientist Oscar Hertwig put a sea urchin – a good choice as they are transparent and have a similar reproduction set up to humans- under a microscope, dropped a sperm onto it and watched as the cells merged into a single nucleus. Finally, the origins of life had been discovered.

Weasel Testicles, Anyone?

From the dawn of civilisation people have been trying to enjoy sex without getting pregnant. Some early methods of contraception are familiar. Coitus Interruptus (the withdrawal method) was a popular choice, although people put way too much importance on sperm and to ‘waste your seed’ was seen as a sin in many cultures2.

While it would be many centuries until the birth control pill was created, early societies used natural ingredients to prevent pregnancy. An ancient Greek legend involves the goddess of spring Persephone eating nothing but pomegranate seeds to avoid getting pregnant when she was kidnapped by the God of the underworld. We now know that pomegranate seeds have naturally occuring contraceptive components, so the ancients were onto something2!

Less effective forms of ancient contraception involved wearing weasel testicles around your neck or wearing animal organs as condoms. The famous lover Casanova even encouraged women to use half a lemon as a cervical cap!

The Search For A Birth Control Pill

Condoms, diaphragms, douches and pessaries (a prosthetic device inserted into the vagina which used to be used as a contraceptive containing spermicide) all predate the pill, but they were often unsafe, messy or relied heavily on the man. Women needed something that they could use on their own terms to prevent unplanned pregnancy – and in the 1950s, they finally got it.

Long standing contraceptive advocate and originator of the term ‘birth control’ Margaret Sanger met Goodwin Pincus at a dinner party and together they decided to start searching for a hormonal contraceptive which women and people with uteruses could take to prevent pregnancy.

Pincus was trying to rebuild his image after the scientific community rejected him for being a Frankenstein style scientist – and bragging about it to the press. Sanger had spent years working as a nurse and had met women desperate to stop having children for the sake of their health and their existing family. She wanted women to be able to enjoy sex without fear of pregnancy – and to put them back in control of their fertility.

It is important to note that Sanger was a eugenicist.* Her motives may have been in empowering women to be able to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy leering over them, it may have been in stopping people she deemed unfit from having children, or it was likely a combination of the two.

*Eugenics is the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.

Together with catholic doctor John Rock and heiress and scientist Katherine McCormick, who funded most of the research, work began on creating a contraceptive pill.

As it was illegal to conduct large birth control trials in the US, the first pill was tested on women in Puerto Rico where there weren’t such laws. The women were not informed this was an experimental trial or of possible side effects, making this an incredibly unethical study.

The early pill contained a much larger dose of hormones than it does today and almost 20% of the women in the Puetro Rican trials complained of headaches, nausea, dizziness and weight gain. Despite how unethical this study was, only one woman became pregnant and the trial was deemed a success5.

In 1957 the first birth control pill containing oestrogen and progestogen was made available in the U.S.A. Named Enovid, the pill was initially marketed for ‘gynecological disorders’ until 1960 when it was approved for contraceptive use.

Enovid came with a big label saying “warning: prevents pregnancy” so people still got the message. A year after it’s launch, 400,000 women in the United States were taking it — which increased to 1.2 million by 19627.

A year later, Enovid was available in the U.K for married women. Non married women were only allowed to obtain the pill legally in 1967 in the U.K – but there are stories of women getting around this by using a fake wedding ring.

The legacy of the pill

The birth control pill isn’t called one of the seven wonders of the modern world for nothing.6 Giving women the option to control their fertility meant that they could choose when, and if, they had children. This revolutionised women’s possibilities. It gave them the option to work for longer, pursue different careers, and to marry for love – not necessity.

“The pill gave women more autonomy. It gave them control over their reproductive health. If they were married and their husband didn’t want to use condoms, for example, or refused to use condoms, this gave them a level of control over their fertility that they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” says Dr Anne Hanley*, a historian specialising in sexual and medical health.

How Hana Made History

Things have changed for the better since the days of weasel testicles and lemon diaphragms. Better access to contraception and more (if still not perfect) acceptance of female agency and sexuality means that women and people with uteruses are by and large no longer defined or controlled by their reproduction. We can choose if we have kids at all, how many we have and when we have them. A lot of that is thanks to the pill.

In 2021, Hana – a progestogen only pill available to buy over the counter without prescription – launched in the U.K. Suitable for many women and people with uteruses, Hana can help prevent pregnancy by consistently inhibiting ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus.

It’s been sixty years since the pill was first invented and now women and people with uteruses can finally access it without a doctors appointment. Whether you’re too busy or cannot get a doctors appointment, or if you simply want to decide which pill you take, you just need to answer some questions so your pharmacist can help you decide if Hana is right for you. We trust that you know what you want. It’s 2021 and it’s about time! Want to find out more about Hana? Read this next.

The health care providers quoted in this article do not endorse any products or brands.