By Toni Nealie
When you’ve had reliable contraception all your life, it’s easy to take it for granted. Now that politicians and religious groups are contesting women’s access to reproductive health care, “The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution” is timely. Jonathan Eig has written a compelling, frustrating and enraging account of activist Margaret Sanger, scientist Gregory Pincus, heiress Katharine McCormick, and Catholic gynecologist John Rock, and their race to discover a miracle pill. The group wanted to stop women dying from dangerous contraceptives, abortion, childbirth and exhaustion. They aimed to help couples plan their families and enjoy sex.
Eig, a former reporter and the best-selling author of “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” and “Get Capone,” was captivated by the individuals and the important story behind the pill. Crusader Margaret Sanger believed sex was good and that women should have more of it, but it needed to be separated from procreation. That’s where her lifelong quest began. Sanger and her supporters had to invent and test a workable hormone formula, raise money, build alliances and work their way around repressive laws banning information about birth control.
“What really appealed to me was that they were all in the position of underdogs,” explains Eig. “Gregory Pincus was fired from Harvard and worked out of a garage; John Rock took on the Catholic church; Katharine McCormick, one of the first women with a degree in science from MIT, paid for this whole thing because no one else would fund that kind of research. They were all trying to do something really dangerous and that seemed impossible.”
“The Birth of The Pill” is a lively tale, not a dry social history. “I wanted it to be engaging and I wanted it to be entertaining,” says Eig. He built the book around the individuals. “These were such outrageous characters. They were so over the top. Every one of them was larger than life, knew it, and enjoyed being the center of attention—which made for a dramatic storytelling approach.”
I found myself holding my breath in places and galloped through the book in two sittings. Eig explains that while the reader knows how the story is going to end, the protagonists didn’t know if they would live long enough to realize success. “They were pushing and pushing and facing these incredible obstacles, so I tried to keep myself in their point of view and remember that there was a lot of suspense for them.”
He was surprised at the group’s “seat-of-the-pants” research. “They were making it up as they went along and pushing all kinds of ethical boundaries: testing it on women who were being treated for infertility, on women in mental hospitals, in the slums of Puerto Rico, trying desperately any way that they could.”
Nevertheless, he feels that it is important not to apply twentieth-century standards to the group. “What they did was at times cruel and insensitive to women, but by the standards of their day they worked within normal procedure. They really believed that they were being ethical.”
I was shocked that in the 1920s one-third of all pregnancies in America ended in abortion. “You have to understand abortion to understand birth control,” says Eig. “Throughout human history, women have been trying to avoid making babies. When they didn’t have enough choices they resorted to abortion, all too often. That’s one of the things that really motivated Margaret Sanger: abortions were unsafe, they were dangerous and they were hard to get.”
Eig identified with Pincus the most, because he spent so much time reading the scientist’s papers and talking with his daughter. The complicated character of Sanger also fascinated Eig. She could be regarded as a terrible mother because she abandoned her children for her cause. “Was she selfish or was she selfless? Was she pursuing her own interests at the expense of her children or did she believe that taking care of women all over the world was more important? ” He points to the sexism inherent in such criticism. “There are men who abandon their families for political careers—no one criticizes Martin Luther King because he was a bad father.”
The writer’s motivation for the book, apart from his wife telling him that women buy more books than men, is the fact that we’re still arguing about contraception. “We’re still debating whether women have the right to control their own bodies. It strikes me as a conversation we would never have if men were the subject. No one talks about taking rights from men and what they decide to do with their bodies. It’s a very sexist world we’re living in. It’s okay for men to have sex just for fun, but women shouldn’t. You can see that in the TV ads for Viagra. We’re living in a very screwed up world in that sense.”
“The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution”
By Jonathan Eig
W.W. Norton & Company, 400 pages, $27.95
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.