★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig | October 2014 | W. W. Norton & Co. | Paperback $16.95
Spanning the years from Margaret Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.
I absolutely devoured this book, but I’ve had a hard time writing a decent review for it. I’m having a hard time because I get pretty passionate about some of the issues discussed in this book, but this space is not — or shouldn’t be — a platform for my political views. IMHO, mixing hobby stuff and political stuff is probably not a great recipe for a blog. Hobbies and politics are not two great tastes that taste great together.
But. Every once in a while, these things do get mixed. It’s unavoidable, if you’re reading and enjoying a book about a contentious topic and you happen to keep a blog where you share your opinions on the books you’ve read. The topic of a book and one’s opinion of that book are necessarily entwined. So, fair warning: this review gets a little political.
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The Birth of the Pill is about, well, just that: the development of the first pharmaceutically produced hormonal birth control method, and its impact on society.
Now, the Pill in and of itself might not seem like a particularly controversial thing to modern readers. After all, it and other forms of hormonal contraception have been in use since my grandmothers were my own age. Obviously the Catholic church has its objections, as do a handful of smaller groups (don’t even get me started on the Quiverfull movement), but overall the Pill has been a common fixture in household medicine cabinets for well over half a century.
The controversies are more apparent when we consider the events and people involved in the making of the Pill. Questionable treatment of experimental subjects? Potentially serious side effects brushed under the rug? A major backer involved with the eugenics movement? Ties to an organization that was (and still is) the most prominent abortion provider in the country? Check, check, check, and check.
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I had to read this book chapter by chapter, breaking it up with other less rage-inducing books or activities. From the male doctors and researchers failing to take their patients’ concerns/needs/side effects seriously to the male, celibate priests of the Catholic church presuming to tell women how sex and babies should work, to the refusal of so many policymakers to allow even discussion of contraception much less development/distribution of it, to the lives damaged or lost to botched home-induced abortions and unwanted pregnancies resulting in dangerous, deadly births. . . there is no shortage of issues to rage about in this book.
Overall I think the author does a fine job of presenting the facts as they are, even when they might not be particularly palatable — and in this case, there are plenty of unpalatable facts to choose from regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. In the end, though, this story is a great reminder that history is not made by people who back down from controversy. Nor can the history of something that has had a profound impact on the world be tied up in a neat little bow without ignoring the knots and messiness that were part of its story as well.
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I think this book is also a great reminder of how hard women had to fight — not that long ago! — for even basic forms of equality, and how important it is that women be allowed to control their own bodies in order for that equality to continue/grow.
It’s hard to imagine my doctor refusing to provide contraception because it isn’t curative medicine (and if you don’t want kids, too bad, you’re a married lady and have a duty to your husband — and if you’re not married, you’re a whore), or not being allowed to even discuss contraceptive options with me without breaking the law and possibly losing his/her (though let’s be real, it would have been his) license. And yet, these are things women — our own great-grandmothers! — were having to deal with less than a century ago. It’s just so hard to fathom and I’ve never been more grateful to be living in the 21st century than I was after finishing this book.
And yet, there are still people in this day and age who make women pawns in their political games, who make very real health needs collateral damage in their efforts to win votes — and even more frighteningly, there are still people who will go to any lengths to punish people who don’t step in line with their own beliefs about what women are allowed to do. The day after I finished reading this, a domestic terrorist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing 3 people because he thought he was somehow saving babies.
This is why I couldn’t just write a cute little “Good book! 5 stars!” review for this title on Goodreads and leave it at that. If you’re a woman (or partner of a woman) who uses modern contraceptives, you need to read this book. You need to appreciate the small miracle that is the Pill.
- Jonathan Eig’s official website
- Royal Society of Chemistry review
- Kirkus review
- NYT review
- Washington Post review
- Author interview at NPR
Publication information: Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. Print.
ource: Owned, self purchased.&
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.