Review: The Birth of the Pill

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, Jonathon Eig


Hardcover, 400 pages

Published October 13th 2014 by W. W. Norton & Company

Source: E-ARC from Edelweiss


From Goodreads

We know it simply as “the pill,” yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig’s masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitro fertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.

Spanning the years from 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.

The Birth of the Pill was a fascinating look at the 4 people that put their names, their time, their brains and their money behind the creation of what we now know as “The Pill”.  I already believed that the availability of birth control is one of the most empowering inventions ever for women but this book gave me the actual history to back that up.  I have 12 pages of highlights on my kindle and I still don’t know how to review this book.  You should read it- let’s start there.

Did you know it used to be illegal to even teach women about birth control?  I didn’t!  The shifts of attitude that took place during the time Eig covers was shocking to me.  John Rock, the Catholic ob-gyn who helped to test the Pill on patients is quoted in 1936 as saying:

Nature intended motherhood to be woman’s career.  Anything that diverted a woman fromstarting that career immediately upon marriage is socially wrong.

Yet by the time the Pill came on the market as Enovid in the 1950’s Rock was actively trying to get the Catholic church to accept Catholic church for women.  Quite a shift over really a relatively short time period.

Something that was shocking to me was the tie in between the developers of the Pill and the eugenics movement-that was scary.  Not what one thinks about when considering medical pioneers.  The lack of oversight in the human testing process both in the US and Puerto Rico also put the time period into perspective for me.  Pincus and Rock and their colleagues tested the Pill on basically any woman willing to sign up without giving an informed consent like you would see today.  A large number of the women testing their dosages were actually trying to get pregnant-not prevent.  Now, Rock was absolutely interested in the use of hormones to help women with fertility issues, but the dearth of information given to patients would help you to lose your medical license if you tried that today.

The Birth of the Pill gave me quite an idea of what life might have been like without the access to birth control that we have right now.  The personal appeals to Sanger and McCormick as the women behind the project made me sad and so very thankful for the work they did!  The letters quoted were quite sobering – a 30 year-old woman with 11 children in 14 years of marriage.  Can you even imagine?  Because I can’t.

Eid followed the timeline of the work on the Pill while moving the focus from player to player often so the book moved pretty quickly for me and never became too dry or scientific.  This was a completely fascinating look at the 4 players that made the Pill as we know it possible.

5 stars!

Read this! Or tell me what you think if you have read this!

Thank you W.W. Norton & Company and Edelweiss for this advance read copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

All quotes were taken from an uncorrected galley proof subject to change in the final edition


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