By Laura Wiersema ’18
Simpson College kicked off Women’s History Month with a lecture by Elaine Tyler May dispelling myths about the birth control pill for women and stressing the importance of knowing the history behind the contraceptive that seemingly sparked the sexual revolution.
May, author of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, is the 27th woman to give the annual Women in America lecture at the school, a keynote event for Women’s History Month supported by Simpson Forum and the Women’s and Gender Studies program.
A professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota, May was naturally intrigued by the story behind the most popular form of birth control in the United States. Her interest in the subject came much before her post-secondary education, however.
May’s father, Dr. Edward T. Tyler, was an endocrinologist who conducted clinical research on the pill, heightening her awareness of the issue, even at age 12 when the FDA approved the pill.
What May wants people to understand is that the birth control pill has no power on its own. As she said, “Technologies don’t make social or historical changes. Technologies are not agents of history. People are agents of history.”
When the creators of the pill conceived of the idea and pushed for its advancement, they didn’t intend to spark social change, she said. They saw it as a way to end poverty in a time when the global population was rapidly increasing. They saw it as a way to eliminate unwanted pregnancy and guarantee happy marriages.
“For American women, without the gains of the feminist movement, the pill really would not have had the kind of earth-shaking power that it ended up having,” May said. “The feminist movement opened doors for women. The pill allowed women to walk through those doors and take advantage of those opportunities because they now could reliably control their fertility.”
For young women today, it can be easy to take the pill for granted but May focused most of her talk on the history behind it, reminding the audience of the politics and work it took to gain acceptance. Though access to birth control is still denied to many, 10 million U.S. women use the pill now, she said.
“And if that’s at risk, then that could have big, big consequences for your life, your individual life, and you better know your history,” May said. “Women use the pill as a powerful tool not only to control their fertility but to change their lives.”
Jan Everhart, department chair of Religion and a women’s and gender studies professor at Simpson, said learning about the history of birth control gave an important context to something to integral to women’s lives today. The option of birth control was simply a gateway for women to find freedom in other parts of their lives as well.
“I would say reproductive freedom is the biggest piece in the emancipation of women,” she said. “If you take that away, then many other things are going to go away, too.”