The Social History of the Birth Control Pill

Throughout history, women’s lacked essential freedoms due to their obligation to maintain the home and bear children. Women were raised to be modest and asexual until marriage. During marriage, women still had to be modest, but they were encouraged to be very sexual beings with their husbands to reproduce. However, the act of bearing and raising children consumed women’s lives. Women were required to stay in the home and be good, maternal beings. It was only until the invention of the birth control pill that women were able to truly take some control over their bodies and livelihood.
The duty of bearing children came with many

consequences. The actual act of bearing children was dangerous. Multiple pregnancies took a health toll on a woman’s body and the field of obstetrics was new in medical research. Raising multiple children was also economically inconvenient, especially to the working class. Even when a second income was necessary in a household, women had no time to enter the work force as they were too busy being mothers. Clearly, women were restricted to this one societal role.

The concept of birth control was not new. Women had been trying many ways to prevent pregnancy. Many of the beliefs to prevent pregnancy were folklore. For example, one of the popular ways of preventing pregnancy was throwing an ear of corn into the river. If a woman threw an ear of corn into a river, she thought she was protected from pregnancy for the entire month (Crawford and Unger 147).

The concept of birth control intrigued many women, especially those looking to spread their horizons outside of persistent motherhood. The campaigning for birth control quickly became a popular feminist movement.

The Comstact Act of 1873 hindered the birth control movement in the United States. The Comstock Act became federal law that made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail including pornography, contraceptive devices, or information about contraception and abortion (Gordon 23). Without any access to birth control, or better yet the knowledge of it, women lacked the freedom to reproductive choice.

Anthony Comstock was the early force behind restrictions on birth control. He was a devout Christian who believed that the majority of American society was becoming licentious due to the contraceptive industry. Comstock headed for Washington in 1872 to further his cause. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act, which was aimed at stopping trade in “obscene literature” and “immoral articles”. It also targeted information on birth control devices, sexually transmitted diseases, human sexuality, and abortion (Gordon 24).

In a 1915 article, Margaret Sanger refers to the Comstock Law saying, “There is nothing which causes so much laughter or calls forth so many joking comments by people in Europe as Comstockery in America” (Kennedy 13). She challenged the law in 1916 by opening up the first birth control clinic in America and in 1936 she helped bring the case of United States v. One Package to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Kennedy 21). That decision allowed physicians to legally mail birth control devices and information throughout the country. Finally, in 1965, the Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the Comstock Law, ruling that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right (Kennedy 23).

In America, it is commonly known that before World War I, society had the perception that woman’s primary function was to bear and raise children. Preparation for motherhood and marriage began shortly after a girl’s birth. Throughout a girl’s life, cleaning house and caring for children were the only skills that were taught to her. Women had no option to develop their individuality. Their status was identified with their husband’s status as “women were nothing more than property” (Crawford and Unger 101). The female role was a housewife and a mother, belonging to her husband.

During World War I, women had to fend for themselves and their families without their husbands or fathers. During WWI some of the roles of women changed because they had to enter the work force to cover for the men off at war. However, by the 1930’s, the status of women in North America regressed. Men retook their jobs after WWI even though women finally maintained suffrage in 1920. By the Great Depression, because of the overwhelming rate of unemployment due to the depression, women were laid off before men (McCann 57). Many women ended up back in the home assuming traditional roles and regressing to their original status before WWI.
Again, during World War II, women were once again thrown into the workforce. This was the beginning of the change in status and roles for women. However, women’s maternal roles were still continuing to hinder their equal entrance into the workforce with men. This provoked serious dedication to find a way to control pregnancy and motherhood.

During this time, President Theodore Roosevelt shared a belief, held by the majority of politicians at the time, that families of America should act as “servants of the state and should provide children to build national strength” (McCann 50). This feeling in America was at the time when the industrialization was at its peak in the US and beginning to take hold else where in the world. Contraception was considered an ethical issue in that the majority of Americans believed it was a form of abortion and therefore immoral and was still enforced by the Comstock Laws.

Gregory Pincus was an American physician, biologist, and researcher during the 20th Century. Early in his career he began studying hormonal biology and steroidal hormones, but his first breakthrough came in 1934 when was able to produce in vitro fertilization in rabbits (Kennedy 55). In 1953, Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick confronted Pincus with the idea of creating an oral contraceptive. He sought out Searle, a pharmaceutical company, about funding for their plan (58). Searle’s initial reaction was ‘no’ because it jeopardized his company due to the austere birth control laws. Despite the fact that Searle had no intention of creating an oral contraceptive, Frank Colton, a chemist at the company, accidentally developed a type of one. Pincus was allowed to have samples of the drug for his research (60). In 1957 The Pill was released as a treatment for gynecological disorders. Finally, in 1960, it became FDA approved and by 1963, 1.2 million women were using it (62). Although Searle was originally reluctant to fund research for an oral contraceptive, he soon reaped the rewards of the newly invented Pill, and monopolized the industry for a short time (63).

Margaret Sanger watched her mother die at an early age, which was partly due to the stress of bearing eleven children. After her mother’s death she worked as a nurse in New York City and saw many women die from childbirth and self-induced abortion. The horrors that she witnessed there caused her to devote much of her time to promoting birth control for women. She set up the first clinic in 1916 and founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 (Kennedy 12). She had always envisioned a birth control pill that would be much easier to use than the diaphragm. In 1950, she met up with Gregory Pincus, who researched her idea, and with Katherine McCormick, who funded it. Her exhaustive efforts paid off in 1960 when The Pill was finally approved and sold on the market.

Katherine McCormick was born in 1875 to a wealthy Chicago family. Unlike many women of her time, she was granted the opportunity of attending college, but despite her education she married Stanley McCormick in 1904. However, two years after their marriage he developed schizophrenia and her life was greatly altered. She soon turned her focus to promoting the cause of women’s suffrage. In 1917, McCormick met Margaret Sanger in Boston and they frequently kept in touch. During this time McCormick was devoted to researching schizophrenia while Margaret Sanger was adamant about pursuing the area of birth control. In 1947, McCormick’s husband died and she was the heir to his $15 million fortune. She now decided to turn her attention to the birth control movement and joined forces with Sanger. With her astounding wealth, McCormick financed the majority of research and development of The Pill.
Margaret Sanger dreamt of the idea of a birth control pill since she was a young woman. If she wasn’t confined to the boundaries of her time, her and McCormick could’ve researched and funded The Pill without the help of any male doctors or scientists. Unfortunately, the society that they lived in would not allow them to do so; they did go as far as they could. Many of their achievements go unnoticed, but both women were really the leading forces behind the development of The Pill. Margaret Sanger died in 1966 and Katherine McCormick in 1967, but fortunately, both lived to see their dream be fulfilled.

Birth control appeared to be “…increasing isolation and mobility of the individual family” (Birth Control in America). It allowed women to control the size of their family, and therefore taking control over their lives as well. Fewer children meant less work, more money, and more time for women. With the birth control movement, the family was reshaped in size from seven or eight children to what is more common today, two to three children.

Perhaps this is because there were huge advancements for women that could come out of the use of birth control. However, only two issues were thought of in earnest during the period of the “sexual revolution.” Margaret Sanger, who led the birth control movement and coined the term “birth control,” had said that “birth control is the first important step [a woman] must take towards the goal of…[becoming] a man’s equal”(Sanger B 1). Women no longer had to conform to the stereotypical name of mother and wife. This was great news for woman across the country, but it was threatening to most men. When sexual intercourse became shared and pregnancy became an option, the attitude shifted from child bearing to child rearing (Birth control in America).

The second major issue to arise form birth control was the sense of independence that had entered the realm of feminism thanks to the option women now had to gain control of their own bodies. Women no longer had to “…enhance the masculine spirits but to express the feminine; the woman is not to preserve a man-made want but to create a human world by the fusion of the feminine element into all of its activities” (Sanger A 36).

The growing individualism of woman and the gathering support for the feminist cause can almost always be linked to the new power women had found at their fingertips with birth control. A promotion of the feminine spirit as a person and not as a servant to her husband could be seen in all of Sanger’s writings on why the practice of birth control was “so important in creating higher individuality…” for women (Sanger B 3).

Another important point which developed from the spread of knowledge and use of birth control was that it gave women the ability to pursue careers without having to go straight into motherhood. A woman could be sexually active and not worry about losing her job because of unplanned pregnancy. This also helped promote women in the workforce as the concept of birth control guaranteed a woman’s dedication to her job.

It is true that birth control may not have been the sole factor in the women’s movement and freedom of self, but without this key element the struggle would have been longer and harder. Birth control changed family size and structure. It gave women a new sexual freedom with their own body. It gave women a voice and their own identity, which in turn allowed them to have an identity that separates from their spouses. Birth control helped shift slightly the balance of power from only being masculine to shared between the sexes.

The popularity of the birth control pill and this feminist movement has made a major impact on the difference of the roles and lifestyles of women. Today there are many women choosing to stay dedicated to their careers and decide when and if they want to have children. There is also less of a social stigma towards childless women because of birth control.


Crawford, Mary, and Rhoda Unger. Women and Gender: A Feminist Psychology. 4th ed.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Practices in
America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976.

Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

McCann, Carole R. Birth Control Politics in the United States: 1916 – 1945. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1994.

Schulz, Amy J., and Leith Mullings. Gender, Race, Class, & Health. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2006.