The pill

A gamechanger?

A poster in a hot pink background colour shows stylised drawings of Chinese families doing several activities. In the center stands a woman holding a pamphlet and a large bottle of pills. The top and bottom of the poster have white Chinese lettering.

There is consensus among historians that since the Early Modern period, a fundamental change occurred in how sexuality is understood and experienced. In general terms, a family-centered reproductive model transitioned to a sexual system emphasising individual agency. Now viewed as the key to selfhood and happiness, sex became in many respects commodified. The timing of this shift is, however, contested, with some historians seeing a gradual shift from the end of the 19th century onwards and others arguing for rapid change in the 1960s.

Trevor Philpott interviews a woman using the pill and visits a pharmaceutical factory for Panorama, 1965, British Broadcasting Corporation.
In copyright

A woman testifies on her use of the contraceptive pill. She’s one of over a million French women already subscribing to the product, 1972,
National Audiovisual Institute France. In copyright

Facilitated by the development of the birth control pill and other contraceptives, the 1970s became the decade in which many sexual taboos were broken - from interracial dating, open homosexuality, and polyamory to the use of inflammatory language and fashion trends accentuating sexuality. As sexual activity among the youth increased, the threshold age for first sexual experiences became younger.

How the pill became a symbol of gender equality,2008, National Audiovisual Archive of Hungary. In copyright

The feminist movement of the 1970s tried to make the taboo atmosphere disappear in the fight for female self-determination of the body. Among their demands was free sexual education, cheap or free contraceptives and the right to abortion.

Women demonstrate in the streets of Rome to defend the law on abortion, 1977, Sette G Istituto Luce - Cinecittà. In copyright

Talking about sex remained unacceptable throughout the 1970s, not all that different from the start of the slow sexual revolution in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, it became clear that there still was a lot left to be said about the relationship between men and women, and the place of women in society.

1980: has the battle for equal rights been won?, NOS, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. In copyright

The pill emerged as a milestone in 20th-century history, with The Economist recognizing it in 1993 as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and BBC stating it is one of the 50 Things that made the Modern Economy. Another quantifiable effect of the increased use of oral contraceptives was the drop in birth rates in industrialised countries in the latter part of the century. The 'pill bump' reflected the increase in freedom for women not only to manage their own family planning and gaining control over their bodies, but also their heightened chances in terms of education and professional opportunities.

What remains of the sexual liberation activism of May 1968 in 2008, Belgian Radio-television of the French Community / RTBF. In copyright

Whereas one-third of the female population in the Western world was using the pill as early as 1965, only 10% of women in developing countries were doing so. Nowadays, the pill ranks among the most popular contraception methods available, although preferences differ from one country to another: results of a survey published in Science Direct in 2011 reveal that oral contraceptives are most popular among respondents in Germany, France and Sweden while in the UK and Romania the use of condoms was preferred.