With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.
Perhaps if the pill had not been invented, American politics would be very different today.
Enovid, the first birth control pill, went on the market in 1960. Unlike any other previously available form of contraception, the Pill was both reliable and controlled by a woman herself, requiring neither the consent nor the knowledge of her sexual partner. “I don’t confess that I take the Pill,” said one Catholic mother after the Vatican reaffirmed its doctrine against the use of birth control, “because I don’t believe it is a sin.” Within five years, 6 million American women were on the Pill. With one quick visit to a doctor, a woman immediately gained sole and exclusive power over her fertility, a power that had eluded her sex since . . . well, since forever.
The Pill made possible the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The true warriors in that revolution were young, single women, who, with the help of this new contraception, took their sexuality into their own hands. If not for women’s self-determined sexual liberation, the sexual revolution might have been another unremarkable episode in the long and varied sexual history of humankind. Instead, with the impetus the sexual revolution gave to a new feminism and a movement for gay liberation, it became one of the major catalysts of America’s ongoing political delirium.
Men certainly benefited from the new sexual freedom, but for them, it was hardly an innovation. Although religious doctrine and public mores told them chastity and marital fidelity applied equally to men and women, the practical moral code included an important loophole: the double standard. Single men had always been able to avail themselves of sexual relations outside of marriage, even at the pinnacle of American sexual puritanism in the waning days of the nineteenth century. For men, the sexual revolution changed things by making sex relatively cost-free. Women were now liberated, and the Pill steeply lowered the risks of accidental fatherhood and unwanted marriage.
For women, likewise, the sexual revolution concerned the rules of engagement, rather than the act of sex itself. Premarital virginity had been going out of fashion for decades before the declaration of sexual liberation. It started in the 1920s, as middle-class Americans converted from Victorianism to Freudianism and began to accept that a desirous woman was perhaps not so depraved after all. There- after doctors and psychologists counseled America’s women that a happy marriage was sustained by mutual sexual satisfaction. Experts encouraged women to explore their natural desires, but to start the journey in the marital bed. Women accepted the prescription and ignored the fine print. At the high noon of fifties traditionalism, 40 percent of women had sex before they married—compared to just 10 percent who did in the reputedly Roaring Twenties.
Yet sex before marriage, like any act of civil disobedience, entailed risk. Each and every time an unmarried woman had intercourse, she risked pregnancy, and with it a limited number of unsavory life- changing options: an illegal abortion of doubtful safety, a shotgun wedding, forced adoption, or single motherhood of a child whose birth certificate would be stamped for posterity with the word “illegitimate.” With rare exceptions, all known human cultures have policed the sexual behavior of girls and women, and America, circa 1959, was no different. Before women obtained the power to control their fertility, they had compelling reasons to comply with whatever arbitrary double standard their society imposed. The Pill permanently changed women’s age-old pragmatic calculus. With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.
Still, birth control remained illegal in some states, and the grip of the law also had to be pried loose before women could take full advantage of the new opportunity for sexual liberation. In the late nineteenth century, purity crusaders had succeeded in passing a spate of national and state laws criminalizing the sale, distribution, or even discussion of birth control. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled Connecticut’s 1879 anti-contraception statute—originally written by circus impresario P. T. Barnum—to be unconstitutional. In that case, Connecticut had convicted Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut for providing birth control to a married couple. (They had been fined $100.) In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court ruled that the law, and any other restrictions on access to contraception for married couples, violated the marital right to privacy, and were thus unconstitutional. Seven years later, the Supreme Court effectively extended the right to obtain birth control to unmarried men and women, in Eisenstadt v. Baird. In that case, the state of Massachusetts had charged William Baird with a felony for giving away vaginal foam to an unmarried college student who attended one of his lectures on birth control and overpopulation. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote in his opinion for the court: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision to whether to bear or beget a child.”
Those who hoped to preserve the pre-Pill cultural norms now had only the power of persuasion at their service. It helped them little. The rapidity of change in women’s sexual behavior was dizzying, and it suggests how much the old order had been preserved by cultural coercion rather than willing consent. In the 1950s, six in ten women were virgins at marriage and 87 percent of American women believed that it was wrong for a woman to engage in premarital sex, even with “a man she is going to marry.” By the time girls born during the sexual revolution came of age, the double standard— in practice, if not exactly in the minds of teenage boys—had been obliterated. Only two in ten of them would be virgins at marriage. Teenagers, in particular, shed the old ways. In 1960, half of unmarried 19-year-old women had not yet had sex. In the late 1980s, half of all American girls engaged in sexual intercourse by the age of 17, two-thirds by the age of 18, and the difference between teenage male and female sexual experience had narrowed from 50 points to single digits.
As Americans settled into the new normal of open heterosexual sexuality, even more profound changes were afoot. The Pill allowed American women to delay marriage and motherhood, while remaining sexually active. Women took advantage of these added carefree years to improve their position in the labor market. According to the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the surge in women’s professional education occurred at the exact moment the Pill became legally available to college-aged women. “A virtually fool-proof, easy-to-use, and female-controlled contraceptive having low health risks, little pain, and few annoyances does appear to have been important in promoting real change in the economic status of women.” They concluded, “The Pill lowered the cost of pursuing a career through its direct effect on the cost of having sex and its indirect effect of increasing the age at first marriage generally.” The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade provided women with even greater control of their own fertility, a goal that had eluded them while abortion remained illegal. (In the years after the Pill went on the market and before abortion became legal, about one million illegal abortions took place per year.) In 1978, the first test- tube baby was born, marking the beginning of the age of assisted, sex-free reproduction.