The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig, book review: A rousing and involving volume

Jonathan Eig's chronicle is a reminder of just how hard-fought, cobbled-together and compromise-ridden are the histories of some of the social structures we take for granted, says Hannah McGill
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The Independent Culture

The most common reference to the creation of a birth control pill is in the context of a list of factors that contributed to the social, political and sexual upheavals witnessed in many nations during the 1960s.

Otherwise, the existence of "the Pill" tends to be taken for granted: who developed it, why, and under what circumstances are matters rarely discussed. It's easy, especially if you came to maturity with a variety of contraceptive options at your disposal, to have the sense that "the Pill" simply happened – that it was called into being by sheer necessity.

Jonathan Eig's investigation of the people and circumstances that actually made it happen would have been a rich and useful resource at any point, therefore. It feels particularly timely, however, at a historical moment in which American employers have gone to the Supreme Court in an effort to prevent their female employees being allowed to fund certain forms of birth control through their health insurance; and when increasingly aggressive online discourse seeks to persuade a new generation that feminism is a movement against rather than in favour of equality, and female autonomy a threat to social order.

However one might respond to some of the complexities of current feminist debates, it's sobering and significant to be reminded how very recently the life of any sexually active and fertile woman – married or otherwise – was dominated by the prospect of pregnancy. Easy enough as a priest or a male lawmaker to lean on religious or sentimental arguments about the primacy of the family; not so easy to be a woman living in poverty with ten-plus children. Eig's book returns repeatedly to the plight of such married women, reminding the reader that swinging single girls in pursuit of strings-free sex were not the only beneficiaries of the Pill's invention: mothers who wanted to maintain their own health and feed all their children were in dire need of intervention also, not because they disdained the family, but because they wanted to keep theirs safe and functional. None of this is to say that this book is either politically dogmatic, or blind to the complications inherent in what was a medically and socially complicated innovation. Side-effects, still an issue for many users of the Pill, caused problems from the start; testing was arduous, somewhat haphazard, and had to be organised without any governmental support; opposition from religious interests was staunch and political backing limited.

Making the project happen required the union of diverse interests ranging from the mildly subversive to the sinister – scientists after an intellectual breakthrough; sex-positive radical feminists out to change society for good; activists concerned with making life better for the poor; eugenicists who conversely wanted to curtail breeding by groups they deemed socially undesirable. Interestingly and unusually, one factor almost wholly absent is that of avarice: though money was required and wealthy interests pursued to fund the research, none of the intriguing individuals who occupy the centre of Eig's story was motivated by personal financial gain.

The book opens with an extract from Philip Larkin's poem Annus Mirabilis (the one about how "sexual intercourse began in nineteen-sixty-three"). It's a reference that's de rigueur to the point of cliché in accounts of 20th century social change, but a slightly odd fit here – not only because it suggests a British context for a story that turns out to be predominantly American, but also because the vast bulk of that story happens long before the 60s "sexual revolution", and is peopled by individuals whose commitment to a separation between sex and reproduction long preceded both the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles' first LP. Indeed, Margaret Sanger, whose activism and research catalysed the development of the Pill, had opened her first birth control clinic in 1916, more than a decade before Lady Chatterley's Lover was even published.

Eig chronicles how Sanger – a dynamic campaigner with whom his readers are encouraged to fall a little bit in love – found her scientific partner in biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus. The two sourced financial backing for their work largely from the deep pockets of Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist, researcher into experimental medical treatments and activist for women's education and suffrage.

Further crucial support came from John Rock, a medical doctor who helped to put a respectable public face on the project – and who, as a Catholic, could argue to members of his faith that some teachings of their Church could be challenged.

Eig evokes the quest of these four innovators in a tone far more novelistic than academic: there's a lot of physical description of people, conjecture about their love lives, and dramatic colour along the lines of "Pincus gunned the engine on his Chevrolet, snaking in and out of traffic towards Massachusetts…" This can be distracting, and certainly won't suit every reader; it also creates the impression that Eig is preparing the ground for a movie along the lines of 2004's Kinsey, or a TV show like Masters of Sex, and perhaps he is. More troubling are some of the side effects of this style, among them confident but unsubstantiated assertions ("birth control would also contribute to the spread of divorce, infidelity, single parenthood, abortion and pornography"), and incongruous flights into sentimentality ("Pincus slid the flower behind his right ear and began to dance in the breeze to a song in his own head… the invention of a mind that had already given birth to something like a song, something that would set men and women free for generations to make love in cars in cold afternoons…").

For the most part, though, this is a rousing and involving volume, and a reminder of just how hard-fought, cobbled-together and compromise-ridden are the histories of some of the social structures we take for granted.

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