4 December 1961: The Pill comes to Britain

The great equaliser of the sexes or another burden placed on women? Few medical innovations have proved as controversial as ‘the Pill’. But love it or loathe it, it has been a major driver of social and economic change in Britain.

Developed in the 1950s by doctors Gregory Pincus and John Rock, the contraceptive pill was first licensed for use in America in 1960. The following year, Enovid 10, as it was medically known, became available on the NHS on 4 December 1961.

But not for everyone. Legally, it was only allowed to be prescribed to older women, many of whom had children already and didn’t wish to add to their numbers. Then in 1967, the rules were relaxed until, shock of all horrors, single, unmarried women could take the Pill – a move that led to much frowning in some sections of society.

Around 50,000 British women were taking the pill in 1962, but by the end of the decade, that number had risen to a million.

The combination of the hormones oestrogen and progestin allowed many women to push back their childbearing years to concentrate on other things such as education and careers. It heralded a cultural shift, better known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’.

In fact, you might say it was more of a cultural earthquake, since a much reduced risk of falling pregnant removed much of the impetus to get married. The era of the ‘co-habiting couple’ had well and truly begun.

But the Pill is still not without its detractors. Some argue that society has swung too far the other way from its rigid views on sex, and now expects all women to take the Pill – a view that places an unfair, even misogynist, burden on women.

Then there have been the frequent health scares over the years that actually led to a decline in its use in the early 1980s. But then again, there have also been health benefits attributed to its use, with reduced risk of ovarian cancer, for example.

Perhaps with as much to its medical pros and cons, we’ve yet to fully appreciate how the little white pill has changed society in Britain.