With the 50th anniversary of its availability in stores, we’ve been doused with stories examining the many ways the pill revolutionised society. Listening to women hailing its arrival and drawn into the nostalgia of it all, as they complained that doctors wouldn’t prescribe it for unmarried women, I recalled that my doctor had given it to me aged 15; along with a talk about STIs and an unconvinced look when I promised her that it really was just to treat my acne-prone skin. How much things seem to have changed.
Yet underlying the triumphant stories of the women who embraced it is the disconcerting belief that my fertility is some sort of disease that needs to be “managed”; that fertility had, for hundreds of generations before us, inhibited women from being truly happy and fulfilled; and we are now better off. But are we? Have we, as women, been truly liberated by this pill that promised so much?
The wonder pill allowed for the supposed “sexual freedom of expression” women had all been waiting for. The benefits of hindsight allow us to weigh the outcomes of this against recent reports of the damage the “raunch culture” is doing to our society’s youngest members. The pill was the bedrock of the sexual revolution that has made raunch reality: sexual gratification with no strings attached; no commitment required.
Further, reliable contraception, where all the responsibility lay with the women, was viewed as a dream pill for many young men not willing to commit to marriage. And so we’ve arrived at the point where I’ve now lost count of the number of girlfriends of mine who can’t understand why their boyfriends haven’t popped the question. For some of them it has meant trading in the dream of a white wedding and moving in as a compromise. But for many others it has merely built a culture where sex is little more than a recreational activity, having little to do with love and therefore difficult to refuse, even when it isn’t wanted.
Today, delaying childbearing or marriage, or even choosing never to marry at all are not only very accepted lifestyle choices, but in some cases encouraged. While charting the median age of first marriages over several decades shows the influence of wartime, economics and social trends; few would deny that the pill has played, and continues to play, a significant part in sustaining this upward trend.
From the time Whitlam removed the luxury tax on the pill in 1972, making it more affordable for women, to 2008; the median age of first marriages increased from 21 to 27.7 years for women and 23.3 to 29.6 years for men. This was both cause and effect of the coinciding fight for equality in the universities, workplaces and governments. It is fair to say that the pill was a catalyst for many changes; delaying childrearing has allowed many women to pursue tertiary education and professional careers.
The struggle for equal opportunities in education and the workplace had some undeniably positive outcomes for women in many respects. In that time it was recognised that women, though different to men, were equal. Today, I don’t think there are any reasonable arguments against women and men being equal, but the effect of the pill was that it encouraged the elimination of some of the important differences. If feminism really is about a woman’s ability to be more like a man, through the avoidance of childbearing, I think we women got lost somewhere along the way.
Surely feminism should be about femininity? I’m not talking about the perfect housewives of 1950’s advertising. Admittedly, it’s difficult to work out the hard and fast rules of what is feminine as opposed to masculine; however, most people instinctively know we’re different, if only because of the very common experience of finding the opposite sex incomprehensible, if not a complete mystery.
While there is a growing body of research looking at the distinctly different ways that males and females develop and act; if anything is going to help us work out what femininity is, surely it is our biologically, inbuilt capacity to be mothers. It seems ironic that so much of the feminist movement has hinged on limiting and suppressing that ability.
If we’re going to be true feminists, should this not mean upholding femininity? Should we not be embracing womanhood and what makes women women - and raising those characteristics up as worthy of respect and honour.
The pill promised us choice, while making motherhood out to be a second-rate option, not worthy of our choosing it (at least not before 30, when Mr Perfect will arrive and things will magically fall into place, fingers-crossed). Society needs to give women a real choice to be mothers, and respect and value it when they do. So I’m all for parental leave, flexibility for mothers (and fathers) in the workplace, and even financially recognising the efforts of mothers who choose to stay home and take care of their children full-time.
If we let women be women, it will not only give men the chance to be the men, but it will also be good for the wellbeing of future generations.
Amy Vierboom is completing her law degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. She worked as a legal researcher in privacy and e-commerce before taking up her current job doing research into marriage and family in Australia.