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How Did The Contraceptive Pill Transform Society?

12/03/2014 11:16 GMT | Updated 11/05/2014 10:59 BST

If you thought about the most significant inventions of the 20th century, you might consider the television, the internet or the microchip, but few inventions have changed society to the same extent as the contraceptive pill. The pill is one of the most popular types of contraception used today - over 3.5 million women in the UK now take it every day. It's fair to say that this inconspicuous little tablet has caused great controversy and changed history. But just how profound has its impact really been?

In the 1950's, there was no such thing as "the pill" and there was no simple, or legal, solution for birth control. Margaret Sanger, a Reproductive Rights Activist, first had the idea of a "magic pill" to control fertility in the US in 1951, at a time when contraception was not only frowned upon, but illegal. Sanger was convinced that contraception was the key to social equality. She campaigned for its legalization and fundraised for research. As a result, the first contraceptive pill, "Enovid", was developed in 1957, billed as a treatment for "menstrual problems" to circumvent the law. The pill became unstoppably popular in no time.

The number of women who took the drug in the U.S. rose from around 400,000 in 1961 to 1.2 million only a year later. By 1959, the US Food and Drugs Administration made a political u-turn and officially registered a legal contraceptive pill. News quickly made its way across the Atlantic. Despite being met with similar moral concern and criticism, in 1961 the pill was made available in Britain to married women, and iIt took a further fifteen years for the pill to become widely available to single women.

Over the next 50 plus years, the opportunities for women and their role in society changed completely.  The pill revolutionised sex and the way women lived their lives. In 1971, just ten years after the pill was introduced in the UK, 47% of babies were born to women under the age of 25. By 2008, this percentage had dropped to 25%.

What's more, the number of couples getting married has been in decline since the 1970's, at least in part because the pill removed the pressure that a pregnancy placed on women to get married. To put this in context, back In 1960, only one in every 100 adults lived with an unmarried partner. This increased to one in six by 2010, and remains a popular option for young couples.

Margaret Sanger died in 1966 but her influence on social equality lives on. With the large number of women going to university today, it's almost impossible to imagine that in 1962, only 9% of women were awarded higher degrees. The ability to delay a pregnancy has helped women surpass their mothers and grandmothers in education, careers and politics. Margaret would be proud to know her vision of financial independence and opportunity for women indeed came true.