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.