On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970

On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970

by Elizabeth Siegel Watkins
     
 

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"In 1968, a popular writer ranked the pill's importance with the discovery of fire and the developments of tool-making, hunting, agriculture, urbanism, scientific medicine, and nuclear energy. Twenty-five years later, the leading British weekly, the Economist, listed the pill as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The image of the oral

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Overview

"In 1968, a popular writer ranked the pill's importance with the discovery of fire and the developments of tool-making, hunting, agriculture, urbanism, scientific medicine, and nuclear energy. Twenty-five years later, the leading British weekly, the Economist, listed the pill as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The image of the oral contraceptive as revolutionary persists in popular culture, yet the nature of the changes it supposedly brought about has not been fully investigated. After more than thirty-five years on the market, the role of the pill is due for a thorough examination."—from the Introduction

In this fresh look at the pill's cultural and medical history, Elizabeth Siegel Watkins re-examines the scientific and ideological forces that led to its development, the part women played in debates over its application, and the role of the media, medical profession, and pharmaceutical industry in deciding issues of its safety and meaning. Her study helps us not only to understand the contraceptive revolution as such but also to appreciate the misinterpretations that surround it.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
This cultural and medical history of the contraceptive pill offers an examination of the scientific and ideological forces that led to its development, the role women played in debates over its use, and the importance of the media, the medical profession, and the pharmaceutical industry in popularizing ideas about the safety and meaning of the pill. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Beverly Gage
The advent of the birth control pill, as we all know, sparked the sexual revolution of the '60s. This modern-day hormonal miracle allowed women to collapse the double standard, breaking free of their reproductive shackles for the first time in history. With the pill, women took charge of their own sexuality. They swallowed the pill and stopped swallowing their emotions. They ... might have done that anyway?

According to science historian Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, the media of the '60s and '70s made a mistake when they married the concepts of sexual liberation and a "contraceptive revolution. In On the Pill, Watkins points out that it was married women who primarily consumed the pill in its earliest years. While campus girls frolicked in the previously fenced-off fields of premarital sex, it was their wedded sisters who used the pill to transform their bodies, themselves and, along the way, the medical profession.

Watkins is most concerned with the latter. Though she titles her book a "social history," she's less interested in the experiences of female consumers than in the ideas of the scientists, philanthropists and activists -- both men and women -- who shaped the pill's use and meaning. "The birth control pill," she writes, "had far different consequences than its developers intended." Over the course of a slim 137 pages, Watkins traces the evolution of oral contraception from medical miracle to social concern to physical threat to fact of life. She analyzes the changing relationship between doctors and their female patients, as women began first to request the new miracle drug and later to question its risks as well as the authority of the male medical establishment. That particular story has been told before but bears repeating.

Her boldest claim -- that the sexual and contraceptive revolutions were circumstantially rather than causally linked -- rests on the fact that "no data have ever supported such an association. In the 1960s and early 1970s, demographers focused on the contraceptive habits of married women to document the contraceptive revolution, while sociologists surveyed the sexual attitudes and practices of unmarried women to study the sexual revolution." While this is a useful point, and one that considerably undercuts conventional wisdom, it also illustrates the limits of Watkins' analysis. If the invention of the pill didn't cause the sexual revolution, then what is the proper relationship between the two phenomena? Why did the media and the public leap on one as the cause of the other? What does that say about American culture? About feminist politics? Watkins does not address these questions. Similarly, she maintains such a narrow focus on the development of the birth control pill that she ignores contemporaneous issues that undoubtedly influenced public views of the pill. Most obviously, she barely explores the debate over the legalization of abortion and its relationship to the pill's rise and fall from grace.

The occasionally impenetrable prose of On the Pill leaves no doubt that this was once a dissertation, and not intended for the casual reader. Convoluted and unnecessarily abstract sentences abound. Despite such stylistic impediments, though, On the Pill contributes a thoughtful, reasoned voice to the often rancorous and polemical debate over the legacy of the pill. --Salon Nov. 5, 1998

Times Literary Supplement - Jon Turney

This is an exemplary study of how the nation which first had access to oral contraceptives first came to terms with their advantages, and their drawbacks.

Nature - Richard Davenport-Hines

Intelligent and well-structured... An admirable exercise in social history.

American Historical Review - Rickie Solinger

A particularly fascinating issue, trim and focused, sophisticated and helpful, fresh and very interesting.

Journal of American History - Janet Farrell Brodie

In every carefully organized, lucidly written chapter Watkins provides surprising corrections to conventional thinking about the new birth control method... One especially noteworthy theme is the book's exploration of the politics of the pill, including Planned Parenthood [Federation] of America's concerted efforts to rebut critics, federal officials' dramatically shifting positions from the 1950s to the 1970s on birth control, population control and family planning, and pill-induced tensions among feminists.

Journal of American Studies - Martin Durham

Any study of the development of the birth-control pill will be centrally concerned with the expansion of women's reproductive choices. But, as this book so clearly demonstrates, it involves other questions too. In part, it is about the risks that come with the ingestion of oral contraception. It is about the relationship between women and doctors, between women and their partners and betwen science, medicine and the media. Not least, it is about how women have responded differently to this intervention into their bodies. Underpinned by some excellent archival material, interviews with key individuals and an extensive use of the newspapers, magazines and medical journals of the time, this study is particularly strong in its discussion of concerns over the safety of the Pill... This is not the only area of interest within this valuable book. Anyone concerned with the debate over scientific advance and medical authority will find this a highly stimulating study... For her, the Pill brought the possibility of voluntary pregnancy, and feminist (and other) critics of its medical effects and social repercussions will need to engage carefully with her arguments if this important debate is to be taken to a new level.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781421403717
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
03/07/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
1,190,087
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Lara Marks
Watkins' refreshing book unravels many the assumptions commonly held about the pill. It provides the first well-documented and thorough historical analysis of the subject.

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