The anniversary of the Pill is, as Gail Collins phrased it in her celebratory op-ed, a moveable feast. The FDA actually approved the Pill on June 23, 1960, but it announced its intentions to do so on May 9 and a Mothers Day celebration of the Pill was just too good for the media to resist. The anniversary was marked in the media by mostly positive pieces; Time proclaimed that the Pill—the only pharmaceutical to commandeer a definite article—had “rearranged the furniture of human relations in ways that we’ve argued about ever since.” On the Square today, Stuart Koehl argues that the rearranging really got started decades before the Pill’s approval:
Because of its scope and intensity, World War II shattered an existing moral consensus, creating a socially unstable situation in which “ordinary” morality was jettisoned. People lived very intensely and with the knowledge that everything, including life itself, was transient. The typical American serviceman in World War II had four sex partners, not counting prostitutes. Venereal disease rates for U.S. servicemen in Europe and Australia reached epidemic proportions that eventually required the military to license and regulate brothels. As Kipling wrote, “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.” . . .
Many of the behaviors predisposed by the pill were already common, albeit covert, features of American life once the pill became available. The pill added fuel to a smoldering fire; it didn’t start the blaze, but it certainly accelerated it and ensured its spread.
If “ordinary” morality was jettisoned during WWII, the Pill has certainly helped change what is considered “ordinary.” As Mary Eberstadt and Joseph Bottum observed two years ago on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, all of Paul VI’s predictions for the Pill have come true: a lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.
Not all of the mainstream media coverage has been entirely positive though. In her New York Times op-ed Elaine Tyler May admitted that the Pill did not turn out to be the miracle cure people had hoped it would be: The divorce rate in the United States more than doubled in the sixties and seventies and unwed pregnancies increased. Meanwhile, Geraldine Sealey proclaimed on Salon that she “hates the Pill” because it lowers her libido (Time noted that there is new research to support this) and mentioned in passing the bevy of other side effects that women on the Pill endure: depression, nausea, weight gain, high blood pressure, and blood clots to name a few. But all of this is endurable and the Pill is still worth celebrating, as May concluded, because the Pill emancipated women. If only. As Timothy Reichert demonstrated in the May issue of First Things—and to finish our little round up here—the Pill has caused a massive redistribution of wealth and power from women to men. There just doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate at all.