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28 February 2024

The strange history of the pill

On the podcast Jam Tomorrow, the story of the contraceptive pill begins with American GIs stationed in England and ends with TikTok influencers.

By Rachel Cunliffe

In Jam Tomorrow, an intriguing blend of postwar history and politics, Ros Taylor explores the promises Britain made to itself “out of the ruins of the Second World War”, and how they’re looking many decades later. Episodes from the first series considered housing, religion and the NHS – but season two begins with an even more contentious topic: contraception. In particular, the pill, which British doctors were first allowed to prescribe in 1961. How did this revolution in cheap, easy-to-access birth control come about, and how did it change society?

It’s a fascinating story that begins with American GIs stationed in England and mixed-race babies being taken from unmarried mothers, and ends with well-being influencers on TikTok discouraging young women from “ingesting artificial hormones”. In between, we get the coldly economic case for contraception, argued at the time in terms of saving costs for the welfare state rather than those of women’s liberation, and a digression into the heated debates within the Catholic Church on whether hormonal birth control should be permitted. (It very almost was – how different things could have been.)

Women’s ability to control their own bodies has been game-changing – if controversial. At the time, some feminists argued against the pill as a “repressive tool of the patriarchy”, making women freely available to men’s sexual desires. Sixty years later, the female-led sex-negativity movement argues much the same thing. Women’s reproductive rights, meanwhile, are under threat: 18 months after Roe vs Wade was overturned in the US, the anti-abortion activists in many states have moved on to attacking contraception. In the UK, a restructuring of healthcare provision in 2012 has made it much harder for women to access birth control.

“The pill recast the whole choreography of relationships,” one of Taylor’s guests argues. It’s hard to think of many postwar innovations that made a bigger societal or economic impression. We may only truly understand its impact if it gets taken away.

Jam Tomorrow
Podmasters

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[See also: Evgeny Lebedev’s vanity podcast]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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