The pill

Emancipation or gender bias?

Purple mirror in the shape of a woman's sign (symbol of Venus)

The contraceptive pill is a proven emancipatory invention since it gave people with wombs the possibility to decide if and when they wanted to start a family. The reliability, availability and ease of use of the pill in particular were game changing. But does this mean that full emancipation has been achieved? The question could be posed if preventing a pregnancy should not be a shared responsibility by default.

“The man is the boss, but why?” Discussions on the position of women in a male-dominated society during an anti-discremination fair in Dronten, The Netherlands, 1970, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. CC BY-SA

In the UK, activists of the Contraception Action Programme publicly questioned the contraceptive laws in place, following the Health (Family Planning) Act of 1979 which they deemed to be restrictive, elitist, biased and inspired by male hypocrisy. Featuring male politicians from that time all boasting swollen bellies, the campaign image questioned: ‘If They Got Pregnant Would We Have This Bill?’.

A political poster showing five men with bloated bellies reads 'if They got pregnant would we have this bill?'

Raising the issue of male responsibility in a wider public debate on family planning was also at the core of an iconic poster campaign that took Britain by storm in the 1970s.

A poster with a picture of a man with short black hair, a sweater and a dress shirt has a hand on his large belly. Text at the bottom of the poster reads 'Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?'

The poster 'Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?' was created to spread awareness on contraception, safe sex and family planning issues. It was part of a campaign issued by Family Planning UK and was displayed in doctors' waiting rooms.

This pre-digital age poster had an astounding and even offensive effect when it first appeared. These shock tactics were effective in drawing men's attention to the issue of unwanted pregnancy - the pregnant image subverting the model's biological masculinity is thought-provoking. The model’s facial expression, moreover, mirrors the distress that the state of an unsought pregnancy may bear. The iconic advertising campaign won multiple awards and inspired quite a few other advertisement designs. The promotional picture below, used by contraception mail order company NVSH, was published in the early 1970s and clearly echoes the Family Planning poster.

A poster of a man with short black hair and a sweater holds a hand on their large belly. The bottom of the poster reads, in Dutch 'what you don't want to happen to you…'

The question remains: are emancipation and gender equality achieved as long as the choice between which partner takes contraceptive pills cannot be offered?

Has contraception truly benefited gender equality? Discussion on Hungarian television, 2008
National Audiovisual Archive of Hungary. In copyright

Surprisingly, it appears that discussion of a contraceptive pill for cismen took place in the late 1950s, even before the development of the female version took off. While in the following decades many options were explored, no product that could compete with the pill has entered the market so far. The pharmaceutical industry is not following science in this respect, because successful trials have been run in the past.

Researchers are trying to come up with a birth control pill for men, 1975, Danish Broadcasting Corporation. In copyright

The inventor of the birth-control pill estimates that a pill for men will not be available for another 20 years, 1995, Danish Broadcasting Corporation. In copyright

While scientists continue their research on a pill for those without wombs, other experimental approaches are being explored including a non-hormonal oral contraceptive that preserves the experience of orgasm but prevents the release of semen. The condom, in the meantime, has already been successfully returned to use by those without a penis at the close of the century.

A paper wrapper sits on a white surface. The wrapper has a blue and pink logo and reads 'femidom'

The 'female condom' or femidom was invented by Lasse Hessel, a Danish doctor, and intended to be worn during intercourse to prevent exposure to bodily fluids. Launched in Europe in 1990, the femidom was supported by several international campaigns. The product did gain traction, even though a global breakthrough hasn’t yet occurred. Partly to blame is the price that remains relatively high (2 to 3 times that of a conventional condom) as a result of strict requirements for production: in the United States, the femidom is classified one class higher as a medical device than the other version. This makes manufacturers reluctant to enter into the market.

A sepia poster shows two people, one bare-chested and embracing the other, in a room. Text at the top left of the poster reads 'Condoms… be sensual, be sexual, be safe.'

Apart from research-related challenges, industrial reluctance, and commercial considerations of the pharmaceutical market, it seems that cultural bias is still a strong factor in what we deem to be the ‘best’ way to protect ourselves and build our families. While cismen fear that a pill would have a physical and mental impact on their sexual experience, the endurance of such side-effects by people who menstruate hardly seems to factor in the debate. On the other hand, the idea of relinquishing control of family planning is thought by many people to be a step back towards pre-emancipatory times.

As the debate continues, science, technology, market places and social conventions will keep on transforming. Yet the 20th century has set an important benchmark: a contraception strategy is part of a couple’s joint journey through life, with many possible turns to be taken.