Sex and Mexican yams

Sexual Chemistry: a history of the contraceptive pill

Lara V Marks <em>Yale University Press, 372p

Both of my grannies came from big families. My maternal grandmother was one of seven and, as a consequence, lost the odd sibling along the way. One brother disappeared to Canada and was never heard of again. A sister died as a child - an event that was considered so common in the early part of the 20th century that she did not think to mention it for years and years, not even to her own daughter. My paternal grandmother, meanwhile, was the eldest of ten children. Although she was clever, her exhausted parents, needing her help at home, had no option but to make her leave school as soon as she turned 13. She spent the rest of her childhood putting sodden washing through a mangle.

I could not help thinking of my grandmothers as I read Sexual Chemistry. Lara V Marks does everything in her power to make this history of the pill as tedious as celibacy itself, yet she has still managed somehow to write a page-turner. We selfish 21st-century women take our freedoms for granted, only rarely giving those who went before us a backward glance. Our families - if they exist at all (and here I am, still determinedly childless at 31) - are meticulously planned, our bodies more exhausted by the commute to work than by the messy business of childbirth. Open Marks's book, however, and once you have recovered from the sheer horror of what women put up with just 50 years ago, you'll be lining up your blessings so you can count them like clean white nappies on a washing line.

In 1957, Gregory Pincus, the American scientist who was responsible for the early development of the pill, began receiving letters from women desperate to know how they might find the rumoured wonder drug. These letters make for heartbreaking reading. "I am about 30 years old," wrote one. "Have six children, oldest little over seven, youngest a few days. My health don't seem to make it possible to go on this way. We have tried to be careful, but I get pregnant anyway. When I read [about the pill] I couldn't help but cry, for I thought there is my ray of hope."

That Pincus was close to making a contraceptive breakthrough at all was, in the circumstances, little short of miraculous. Not only was he up against the predictable opposition of the Catholic Church but, thanks to Joe McCarthy's war on communism, birth control was widely regarded as part of a Bolshevik conspiracy. Researchers were careful not to break the law. In Massachusetts, where Pincus worked, those caught providing contraception faced a possible prison sentence. This remained so until 1972.

There was also the problem of money. The drug companies considered the pill a (possibly dangerous) shot in the dark, and universities were unwilling to risk damaging their reputations by backing such a controversial project. So Pincus was bankrolled by a private individual: a rich philanthropist called Katherine McCormick, to whom he had been introduced by the birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger. McCormick believed that only an effective contraceptive could revolutionise women's role in society. In the course of her lifetime, she gave the project more than $12m.

Once it had been tested (this was done, somewhat unethically by today's standards, with the help of some of Puerto Rico's poorest women), the drug was approved in 1960. Today, many women regard the pill with scepticism, linked as it has been to one health scare after another, from cancer to thrombosis. It is despised by some for its side effects - including depression, headaches and low libido - and by others for freeing men of all responsibility. And it does not offer protection from sexually transmitted diseases such as Aids.

And yet it should not be forgotten that when, in the early Sixties, women finally got their hands on the drab little brown bottles containing the pills, it really was as if someone had pulled back the bedroom curtains and let the sunshine pour in. For many of them, it meant the opportunity to enjoy sex for the first time. "I can still remember the feeling of elation," recalls one woman in Sexual Chemistry. "It was marvellous! Like winning the pools!" Another, advised by her doctor to stop taking it for health reasons, retorted: "Look, I don't care if you promise me cancer in five years. I'm staying on it. At least I'll enjoy the time I have left. For the first time in 18 years of married life, I can put my feet up for an hour."

Marks explores the scientific race to develop the pill and the difficulties had by doctors in testing it effectively. But even if you are bored by hormones, test tubes and Mexican yams (a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of the drug), it is worth struggling on. Nearly 200 million women have taken the pill; if you want to know why, and how their decision affected them, you will find the answers somewhere here. No doubt you will never look at that shiny blister pack in your bathroom cabinet in the same way again.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Telegraph

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men