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:https://www.fpa.org.uk/factsheets/contraception-past-present-future#SuT9] 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
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?