CBS's Smith Celebrates 'Golden Anniversary' of Birth Control Pill: Freed Women from 'Biological Bonds'

Harry Smith, CBS On Thursday's CBS Early Show, co-host Harry Smith commemorated the 50th anniversary of the invention of the birth control pill: "This week is the golden anniversary of the birth of birth control, a medical breakthrough that has changed society and the sexual landscape forever....'The Pill' promised to free women from biological bonds and it did just that."

In a taped report, Smith described the breaking of those "bonds": "In the 1950s, women made up about a third of the workforce. Today, women hold nearly half of all U.S. jobs. In the 1950s, American women, on average, had 3.8 children. Today that number has dropped to 2.1." The report featured a clip of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, who proclaimed: "The invention of the birth control pill revolutionized life for women in America. It's completely changed women's options."

Smith noted how the contraceptive "was condemned by the Catholic Church and by many conservatives." A clip of historian Ellen Chesler followed: "It was really considered immoral to suggest that women's primary role should not be that of wife and mother. But, rather, that women should have rights to experience their sexuality free of consequence, just like men have always done."

Following the report, Smith lead a left-wing feminist panel discussion, featuring "women's movement pioneer" Gloria Steinem, actress Hilary Swank, and Early Show medical contributor Dr. Jennifer Ashton. Smith began by touting Steinem's writing on the subject: "The first piece you ever wrote? Do you remember what you said?" Steinem recalled:

Yes, in Esquire in 1962, I think it was, was about the Pill....I ended up saying that the problem was the acceptance of women's sexuality as much as the women's ability to control it. You know, were there enough liberated men to go around to the newly liberated women. Which turned out to be kind of prescient.   

Smith agreed with that assessment and added: "so many men wrote about it then and they were up in arms. They were afraid of what was being unleashed." Steinem replied: "Well, some of them still are, actually." Her and Smith then shared a laugh.

After remarking that the Pill was supposed to "change the planet," Smith fretted: "Relatively speaking, there are very few women who actually still have access to it, because of cost, because of all kinds of different reasons." Steinem lamented: "Right, and because of abstinence only education which has been a problem, because now pharmacists can refuse to fill a prescription because of health insurance. So, you know, we still have a long way to go in expanding access."

Smith turned to Swank: "Your mother certainly had an attitude that was sort of in tune with the idea of being able to do anything you ever wanted to." Swank explained: "I think for my generation, people like Gloria, and you know, I played Alice Paul, one of the original suffragettes....these women have blazed trails for us, for my generation and generations to come and we still have a lot of work to do to be able to live, you know, our lives the way we want." She also declared: "this anniversary to me marks a real time for empowerment for women."

Moving back to Steinem, Smith wondered: "in all the time that you've been writing about this and talking about this and even protesting for this, was the Pill an important part in this journey?" Steinem responded: "Yes, absolutely. Because it dramatized what has been true throughout human history to varying degrees, which is that human sexuality is not entirely about procreation....there have always been methods of contraception, but this was much more dramatic, complete, and public." Smith added: "And something the woman actually could control."

Smith concluded the segment: "Thank you all very much for sitting on the couch with us....And walking down memory line for a few moments."

Here is a full transcript of the segment:
8:06AM

HARRY SMITH:  In this morning's 'Health Watch,' 50 years of 'the Pill.' This week is the golden anniversary of the birth of birth control, a medical breakthrough that has changed society and the sexual landscape forever. Today it is still – it still has critics, but about 100 million women around the world use it to control when and how, and how many times, they become pregnant.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Revolution In A Pill; 50-Year Anniversary of Birth Control Pill]

CECILE RICHARDS [PRESIDENT, PLANNED PARENTHOOD]: The invention of the birth control pill revolutionized life for women in America. It's completely changed women's options.

SMITH: 'The Pill' promised to free women from biological bonds and it did just that. In the 1950s, women made up about a third of the workforce. Today, women hold nearly half of all U.S. jobs. In the 1950s, American women, on average, had 3.8 children. Today that number has dropped to 2.1.

RICHARDS: It made them able to pursue higher education, to pursue careers. And to plan the size of their families. Which was something they had never been able to do before.

SMITH: For the first decade after its creation, the Pill could only be legally prescribed to married women. Still it was condemned by the Catholic Church and by many conservatives.

ELLEN CHESLER [HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR]: It was really considered immoral to suggest that women's primary role should not be that of wife and mother. But, rather, that women should have rights to experience their sexuality free of consequence, just like men have always done.

SMITH: And here with us to talk about the Pill are women's movement pioneer Gloria Steinem, two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, as well as our Dr. Jennifer Ashton. Good morning, all.

GLORIA STEINEM: Good morning.

SMITH: The first piece you ever wrote?

GLORIA STEINEM: Yes, in Esquire in 1962, I think it was, was about the Pill.

SMITH: Was about the Pill-

STEINEM: Which was then, fairly new.

SMITH: Do you remember what you said?

STEINEM: Well, I ended up saying that the problem was the acceptance of women's sexuality as much as the women's ability to control it. You know, were there enough liberated men to go around to the newly liberated women. Which turned out to be kind of prescient.

SMITH: Well it was so interesting because so many men wrote about it then and they were up in arms. They were afraid of what was being unleashed.

STEINEM: Well, some of them still are, actually.

[LAUGHTER]

STEINEM: In a political sense.

SMITH: Yeah, yeah. The other thing that's interesting about it was this notion that as it was being introduced, it was going to become – it was going to change the planet. Relatively speaking, there are very few women who actually still have access to it, because of cost, because of all kinds of different reasons.

STEINEM: Right, and because of abstinence only education which has been a problem, because now pharmacists can refuse to fill a prescription because of health insurance. So, you know, we still have a long way to go in expanding access.

SMITH: Right. Very interesting also how many unintended pregnancies still exist even though there is a kind of a – especially, at least in the United States, this kind of widespread access to different kinds of birth control beyond the Pill. We're still talking about unintended pregnancies at a rate of about 50%.

JENNIFER ASHTON: And teen pregnancy is going up in this country for the first time in decades. So obviously there are still issues. And I think a lot of the aspects of the Pill really have to be uncoupled from the sexual, pregnancy, family planning aspects, because it is medication and it's used off label, albeit, but for many, many other medical indications.

SMITH: Hilary, you come along at a point at which women have been using the Pill for years. Your mother certainly had an attitude that was sort of in tune with the idea of being able to do anything you ever wanted to.

HILARY SWANK: Yeah. You know, I think for my generation, people like Gloria, and you know, I played Alice Paul, one of the original suffragettes, who helped women get the right to vote. You know, these women have blazed trails for us, for my generation and generations to come and we still have a lot of work to do to be able to live, you know, our lives the way we want. My mom said to me 'you know, Hilary, you can do anything you want in life as long as you work hard enough. You know, she believed in me, she gave me that gift. And so, you know, I'm here, this anniversary to me marks a real time for empowerment for women, you know. And to be here to say, you know, don't give up, don't give up what's right for you, don't give up your dreams, you know.

SMITH: Yeah. Do you think it – is it – in all the time that you've been writing about this and talking about this and even protesting for this, was the Pill an important part in this journey?

STEINEM: Yes, absolutely. Because it dramatized what has been true throughout human history to varying degrees, which is that human sexuality is not entirely about procreation. It's also about expressing love and communication and bonding. And there have always been methods of contraception, but this was much more dramatic, complete, and public.

SMITH: And something the woman actually could control.

STEINEM: Yes. Well, there have been other things that the woman could control, but the point was, I think, that it was such a big event and such a public one that it really changed the image of women and of women's lives.

SMITH: Yeah. Thank you all very much for sitting on the couch with us.

STEINEM: Thank you.

SWANK: Thanks for having us.

SMITH: And walking down memory line for a few moments. Do appreciate it very, very much.
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC