On The Pill

Beverly Gage reviews 'On the Pill' by Elizabeth Siegel Watkins

By Beverly Gage

Published November 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| 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.

Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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