The Pill was a revolution for women… but revolutions have mixed effects

Next year, the contraceptive will be available over the counter – a world away from its early days, when it was both a boon and a blight


Ah, those forgotten phrases of courtship in the swinging days of Carnaby Street and Mary Quant minis! “Get yourself fixed up” was one of the more brusque commands of young men to tremulously virginal girlfriends, though the tenderer swains put it as a more polite question. Read early Jilly Cooper romances about anxious Imogens and Harriets and get a sense of  young women’s anxieties: getting the Pill, hiding the packet from parents, remembering to take it, worrying whether you’d be thought tarty.

Whether we approve the change or not on safety grounds, there is for us veterans something dizzying in the news that from next year women will be able to get their first packet over the pharmacy counter without a GP prescription. Like Prospero’s daughter, we look into ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’, and shudderingly remember the way it was in the decade after 1968. That was the year the oral contraceptive was made available here to unmarried women (wives could get it from 1961). I tell you, sisters, it wasn’t always easy.

Your own GP might have been sympathetic, or even female, but even for women well over the age of consent, some disliked prescribing it. And it was hard to ask a male family doctor who had known you from babyhood, or indeed a new one who was dazzlingly handsome. So, as a young adult you would likely go to a clinic, perhaps in your student or new-job town to be anonymous. I can still visualise my early 1970s visit: there was a hangdog air about us in the waiting room,  awkwardly pulling our skirts down over our thighs. Who, in their late teens and early 20s back then wanted to feel as though they were a truck carrying a placard saying ‘Sexually active. Please pass carefully’?

Contraceptive pills will be available from pharmacies without a prescription from 2024 Credit: PA

There was a routine question from the nurse about whether your ‘boyfriend’ knew you were Going On The Pill. Embarrassing for those (I knew several) who prudently decided to get ‘fixed up’ without having caught one. And imagine how modern daughters of the Tinder sex-positive hook-up age would feel at the presumption that the duty of ‘exploring your sexuality’ should be restricted to one chap. But nobody spoke of such exploration: in 1961, the Macmillan government used the phrase “on therapeutic grounds” even when allowing the Pill for married women. 

There were speeches and letters warning the Pill would cause massive “moral delinquency”, and the Catholic Church condemned it in the encyclical Humane Vitae of 1968. That horrified us convent girls who had expected the new Pope to allow it because it wasn’t a physical ‘barrier’. Philosophical arguments raged as to why it was holy to avoid babies inefficiently by the rhythm method (‘Vatican Roulette’) but not efficiently with a pill.       

The Catholic Church condemned the Pill in the encyclical Humane Vitae of 1968 Credit: Getty

Well, Catholic misery was niche, but any new Pill user felt, in today’s phrase, ‘judged’. Especially if the other half of the clinic, within earshot, was a baby clinic full of squeaks and coos. The word ‘promiscuous’ was still a routine insult, free-living girls were dismissed as ‘tarts’ without any suggestion of money having changed hands. Weddings saw jokes about brides with extra large bouquets, and grannies muttered about there being “nowt new there except the sheets”. You were being responsible, but still felt a bit shifty.    

That eased off a great deal as the decade went on, and on the other hand the state was definitely keen to stop us foisting babies on the public purse. What annoyed me most on my initial visit to a clinic was being given a plain-wrapped packet of 12 condoms to “tide me over” for seven days until the Pill worked. I tried to refuse, on the grounds of NHS economy and my ability to buy my own, but they were pushed at me with a clear suggestion that I was unable to keep my pants on for a week and would sprout unwanted infants.

In short, it was all dead embarrassing. Especially if, like me, you were on a local radio station and found yourself two days later on the women’s programme, interviewing the same nurse who had given you said condoms, each trying to avoid the other’s eye. And – another niche problem – you found yourself hiding the packet deep in luggage on a ferry to Ireland, where contraception was illegal until 1980. There was a ridiculous urban legend that customs might search you in a special cell, with a chaperoning nun.

The Pill carried a heap of baggage back in the 1970s Credit: Bettmann

Thus my boomer generation lived through a different sexual era. And its dangers: I actually came off the Pill within a year with soaring blood pressure, presenting a real risk of thromboses. (That meant a further visit to the clinic for a Dutch cap, even more embarrassing since I dropped the plastic model of the female innards on the floor and had to crawl around collecting missing fallopian tubes before the nurse came back.) But, for all that, the coming of the Pill was a revolution. And revolutions have mixed effects.

It reduced a real terror of unwanted pregnancy and the shadow of termination or adoption. It enabled wives to plan families around careers – though some, as we now see, waited for unwisely long. Decoupling the act of love from its biological function of creating life, the Pill did supercharge a squalid commercial sexualisation of western culture; but it also enabled loving couples to get properly acquainted before shackling themselves legally for better or worse. No more the shock of the wedding night.

It dumped responsibility firmly on women, reasonably since conception affects us most, but when the Pill failed, or seemed to, it opened both wives and singletons to bitter accusations of “tricking” the father. Indeed, it took too much responsibility away from men, many of whom in decades before #MeToo airily presumed girls were insouciantly usable, handily “fixed up”. It made everyone perilously forget about STIs until Aids came along: many couples never saw a condom for years.

So, all in all, whether boon or a blight, it has certainly been a change.