It was probably fate that led Elaine Tyler May to write a book about the Pill.
She was 12 when the first birth control pill went on the market in 1960. Her parents were deeply involved in its development and distribution, her father as a clinical researcher, her mother as an advocate for birth control clinics in Los Angeles, where the family lived at the time.
She remembers the media swarming. No, her father told them, the Pill would not make single women promiscuous. (It was always women who were "promiscuous," not men, May said.) But it would prevent unwanted pregnancies, he insisted.
As May writes in her new book, "America + the Pill," that is perhaps the one expectation that the Pill has actually fulfilled 50 years later. It was not the miracle drug that solved the population explosion and world poverty; nor did it help defeat communism, as many of its advocates hoped. Its primary legacy today is that it gives the women lucky enough to get it the power to control the creation of life in their bodies -- and the chance to reach for their dreams.
"The Pill was hugely important in allowing women to control their fertility and their lives," said May, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Minnesota.
May, 62, has spent her career studying the intersection of public and private life. She teaches courses on women's history, the culture of the Cold War, and sex and politics. Her books focus on the same topics. They include "Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era" and "Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Writing about the history of the birth control pill seemed a natural outgrowth of her work as a social historian, she said. But the Pill also touched her life in myriad personal ways.
She remembers her father's frustration with determining how to study the Pill's safety -- he played a key role in the approval process.
His friends and colleagues were people who she later realized were pioneers in its development. In the early 1970s, at his suggestion, she was a participant in a study on the low-dose version that set the standard for the much safer pills that today are used by women worldwide.
But perhaps most important, May was among the first generation of women to know what it means to have exclusive control of their own fertility. Men need not be involved.
That was the ultimate goal of the two "mothers of invention," Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick. Sanger was the founder of the organization known today as Planned Parenthood. McCormick was a wealthy advocate for women. Both were in their 70s when they launched their crusade for the perfect contraceptive.
It was the 1950s. Family harmony, not the emancipation of women, was the driving force behind it, even for Sanger. She had become an outspoken advocate for population control, family planning and, in a darker aspect of the Pill's history, its use in controlling the population of poor minorities and immigrants.
The science behind the Pill came from infertility research. Doctors knew that suppressing ovulation with hormonal drugs could result in a spurt of fertility when the drugs were stopped. Sanger and McCormick together funded the research that led to those same hormones being used for contraception.
The timing of the Pill's appearance on the market was impeccable. The feminist movement was just beginning, which provided women unprecedented professional and educational opportunities. Many give the Pill undue credit for sparking both feminism and the sexual revolution, May said. Her view is more nuanced.
"What made it revolutionary," she said, "is that it allowed women to take advantage of those new opportunities."
Women flocked to the Pill. By 1966, about 6.5 million American women were on it. Most were married, because at the time single women were not allowed to have it. Still, May said, no one knows how many single women went to their doctors with fake wedding bands or got their married sisters to act as stand-ins.
She also dismisses the role of the Pill in the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s. May writes that as late as 1972 a national survey found that three-fourths of sexually active young single women rarely or never used contraception. Only then did women begin to claim the right to sexual and reproductive freedom.
Much has changed. "Unlike their mothers who saw the Pill as a miraculous godsend, many young women today take the Pill for granted," May writes.
But she sees a growing chasm between two groups of young people. There are those like her own three adult children, who did not grow up with shame, guilt and conflict around sex, who instead were taught "to make decisions wisely." Then there are those for whom nothing has changed.
More than 100 young women responded to an Internet survey that May did as part of her research. "Many lived in the same world I grew up in," she said. "One woman I heard from complained bitterly about abstinence-only education."
Today contraception is a political football, caught up in the debate around abortion and a backlash against sexual freedom -- a sad turn in the social history of the country, May said.
"The ones that are hurt by that are the young people," she said.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394