Life Before Birth Control Was Shockingly Different

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
The Pill, capital T, capital P, was first approved by the FDA in 1957 under the guise of a treatment for severe menstrual disorders. It took three years for it to be approved for contraceptive use — three years of women claiming "menstrual disorders" to get their hands on it.

Even after FDA approval, political barriers still held — in 1964, it was still considered criminal to use birth control in eight states, even though, according to PBS, more than 2.3 million American women were on the pill at that time. Only in 1965 did it become legal for all married couples to have access to birth control, despite state regulations. It took another seven years for the pill to become legally available to single women.

Of course, the first round of the pill had a greater risk of some of the more severe side effects of hormonal contraception than the lower-dose versions commonly used today — blood clots, heart attack, stroke, and depression, plus some weight gain. But the invention of the pill was life-changing for many women. According to Planned Parenthood, one-third of wage gains women have made since the 1960s are due to access to oral contraceptives. The number of women who completed college is six times what it was before birth control was legal, and though this is doubtlessly due to many factors, women being able to avoid unwanted pregnancy was key. Here, three women in their 60s talk about what the pill meant for them.
Advertisement

Most people I knew avoided sex as much as possible because of their fear of getting pregnant.

Janet Eckhoff, 66
"It would be absolutely impossible to believe what it was like before the pill. Most people I knew avoided sex as much as possible because of their fear of getting pregnant. Condoms weren't really presented as contraceptive alternatives and I guess there were diaphragms with all that jelly and crap, but those weren't particularly effective, because you had to make sure it was inserted correctly.

"I was 21 when I got married in 1970, and that's when I got the pill. I went to a religious college, and no one I knew took it unless they were getting married. At the time, doctors didn't give the prescription to unmarried women — it just didn't happen. But when you got hitched, you got on the pill. It was safe, predictable, and was just on the list of things to do. So for me, it was just like, yes, of course, when I get married, I'm going to take that.

"There wasn't any insurance to cover it, but the pills weren't expensive or out of reach. They did make you gain weight, like 15 pounds in the first six weeks, which was kind of sad if you were going to wear a wedding dress and everything. But I wasn't really thinking about sexual freedom or anything like that. I was a nice little Christian girl, so we waited about two weeks before the marriage to have sex.

"I went through a divorce later. I was in business school in 1974 and life was completely different then. There was a sexual freedom that was unheard of before, because it was the few years between the pill and AIDs. The freedom was something the generation before us just didn't have. I got an MBA and started a job at General Motors. Having a baby wasn't part of my plan." —Janet Eckhoff, 66

The pill was, and is, a wonderful thing. It gave me choices.

Maureen, 61
"The first girl I knew who took the pill was my friend, who was three years older than me and had a baby at 17. That was in '68 or '69, and after that, the doctor gave her a 'scrip for the pill, and it worked. She was the one who said to me, 'It's great.'

"So one time, I ended up having a period 10 days late, and I was absolutely, frantically, crazy worried that I was pregnant. Thankfully I wasn't, but that's when I decided to go to the Planned Parenthood by my college in Michigan and get the pill. Planned Parenthood was great. They gave you an education on birth control and charged you a dollar a month for your pills. Even if you couldn't afford it, they would just give it to you.

"I remember when the pill came out, I was reading articles in magazines about it, and people kept thinking, 'Oh, women are going to screw everybody now.' They thought that the fear of getting pregnant kept women 'in their place' — that was the attitude back then. If a woman was pregnant and unmarried, she bore the shame of her actions. That was the way they made you feel. If you fooled around with a boy and got pregnant, you would have to have your baby, or go to New York to get abortions, because you couldn't get them in Michigan at the time. So the pill was, and is, a wonderful thing. It gave me choices. It took the fear out of a lot of things I wanted to do in life, and I didn't feel pressured into getting married.

"Now, I have a 30-year-old son, and I'm amazed by young women nowadays who say, 'I can't take the pill, it puts weight on and makes me moody.' I don't get it. Here's a surefire way to put weight on and be moody: Have a baby." —Maureen, 61

The idea that you could have a life and engage in sexual experimentation without paying a very dear price, was very liberating.

Susan Yolen, 64
Advertisement
"I was 14-years-old when Griswold v. Connecticut was passed in 1965. I was not personally impacted by it, but The Pill, capital T, capital P, was a really big conversation at the time, on TIME, Newsweek, LIFE.

"I knew that my mother was using the pill, because I found it under her pillow, and I thought, 'Good for her.' I was proud of my mother for being a part of that movement, thinking about the future of our small family. We already had four kids, we were working class, and to me, I thought it was a really smart thing. So when I read about the case in Connecticut, there was a disconnect for me. My mom was a thoughtful, religious, middle class woman in Pennsylvania, and somehow what she was doing was illegal in Connecticut? I found that hard to believe. I imagined that Connecticut was a state full of nuns.

"Even after 1965, there was a time where the social mores were changing, but access hadn't caught up. I started taking the pill in the early '70s, but it was still difficult to get because Griswold was based on the supposition that only married couples were granted this privacy, this access to contraception. So if you wanted the pill, you had to claim you were getting married.

"Luckily, there was a doctor in a nearby town who was known to be easy in terms of giving out prescriptions for the pill. I made up this story in my head about getting married, but he didn't ask any questions. At the time, I thought it was a little shady, but in retrospect, he was doing a huge public service. There was a really punitive culture around sexuality and pregnancy for young people, and the idea that you could have a life and engage in sexual experimentation without paying a very dear price, was very liberating, for some more than others.

"I didn't escort anyone to an illegal abortion, but if you talk to anyone who did, that is a powerful, unforgettable, and terrible experience that women and their friends went through. After the pill, that was no longer necessary — choosing between the baby or the illegal abortion. Your life did not end and your career goals didn't have to be derailed forever. Because of reproductive rights, women have been able to achieve more in our culture.

"Still, I'm keenly aware that these rights and freedoms are not experienced equally, even today. I am fully cognizant that I was a privileged white kid at a moment in history." —Susan Yolen, 64
Advertisement