From The Public Discourse (Jan. 8, 2015)
A review of Jonathan Eig's The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
Included in the Best of The Public Discourse of 2015
Biographer Jonathan Eig must really like literature.
Eig’s new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, is an entertaining quadruple biography revolving around the creation of the birth-control pill. Yet the book is marred by frequent sexual moralizing and some notable historical-theoretical blind spots. The moralizing is strictly of the sexual-revolutionary variety (he’s in favor), and the resulting blind spots are exactly what one might anticipate. For all that, the book is an enjoyable read—provided that one does not expect too much explanatory depth.
The Story of the Pill
Eig conveys the intertwined histories of Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood), Katharine Dexter McCormick (the major financial backer of Pill research), Gregory Pincus (the intelligent and unstable scientist who did much of the research), and John Rock (the Catholic physician and PR persona who mainstreamed the Pill) in an easy, journalistic writing style. Sanger marshaled McCormick, a strong-minded and resolute heiress, to fund Pincus’s hormonal research in the 1950s. Rock came on board, despite Sanger’s mistrust of all things Catholic, first to provide testing subjects and then to be the kindly and telegenic medical face of the Pill, reassuring all who would listen that hormonal contraception would only reinforce happiness in marriage.
The book is full of engaging first-person accounts, including many interviews. Here, Eig’s journalistic background, and his eye for detail, are put to excellent use. For example, on the book’s very first page, we are introduced to Sanger: “She was an old woman who loved sex and she had spent forty years seeking a way to make it better.” On the same page, Pincus is rendered as “a scientist with a genius IQ and a dubious reputation” who “would speed into a room, working a Viceroy between his yellowed fingers, and people would huddle close” to listen to his big ideas. Even if the reader puts down the book after the first three paragraphs, she will walk away with a vivid, accurate picture of both people.
The very nature of the subject, however, limits the utility of Eig’s interviews. All of the important people described in The Birth of the Pill are dead. It would have been fascinating to see what Eig could have done in a one-on-one interview with, say, the bundle of contradictions that was Gregory Pincus. Instead, he has to rely on the children or grandchildren of the dramatis personae—testimony that can be useful and interesting, but only up to a certain point.
Eugenics and Sexual Moralizing
In his treatment of one of the thorniest questions, the relationship of the birth-control movement to organized eugenics, Eig does a decent job. He claims that Planned Parenthood had an “uneasy alliance” with eugenicists. He does not bother to explain that this collaboration was in fact “uneasy” mostly on the side of the eugenicists, who tended to be skittish about working with unscientific birth-control agitators. On the side of Sanger and Planned Parenthood, the partnership was embraced wholeheartedly, and the male leadership Sanger herself actively recruited in the 1940s and 1950s were openly enthusiastic about eugenics. To his credit, though, Eig gives much more credence to the depth of Sanger’s complicity with eugenics than do most authors who valorize Sanger (literally, as in Ellen Chesler’s otherwise useful biography, Woman of Valor).
Eig is considerably less subtle with his sexual moralizing. With the Pill, the book tells us, Sanger wanted to enable “sex, the more the better. Sex without marriage. Sex without children. Sex redesigned, re-engineered, made safe, made limitless, for the pleasure of women.” Against this drive for progress stood the social scripts of the 1950s, which insisted that, if a woman “had desires of her own—be they sexual, professional, or personal—she was expected to hold them in check, to wipe them out the same way she wiped germs from the kitchen counter.”
Well, then: are you pro-engineered-sex or pro-kitchen-counter? Apparently, there is no other choice.
Feminism and the Complexity of Female Sexuality
At moments like these, Eig comes off as trying too hard to convince himself and everyone else of his feminist bona fides. His previous work is rather testosterone-driven: an account of the capture of Al Capone, biographies of baseball figures, and so on. An interview with the Chicago Tribune reveals that The Birth of the Pill was conceived when another book project fell through and his wife suggested he write “something that women might like to read.” The resulting book has passages that sound like a male reporter trying hard to do just that.
These passages can be mentally excised by the reader without detriment, but a more troubling by-product is the book’s disengagement with the very real issues surrounding the sexual revolution—including its adverse impact on, yes, women. The book speaks blithely of Sanger’s sexual adventures: how charming! What a vibrant woman! Yet it glosses over the degree to which her infidelities caused heartache, to her and to those who loved her.
For example, a few paragraphs dedicated to the melodrama that was her sexual life with a circle of promiscuous British romantics, including sexologist Havelock Ellis, H.G. Wells, and others, would have fit perfectly into this chatty book of sexual history. These erstwhile free-lovers might have preached liberty from all possessiveness, but the actual history of their affairs demonstrates that manipulation and narcissism were the norm. In general, the relations between Sanger and her partners indicate that “free” love is more easily theorized than enacted. But that would not fit Eig’s narrative.
His disinclination to think more deeply about the sexual revolution beyond slogans means that he cannot see the real complexity of female sexuality. Hence, The Birth of the Pill insists relentlessly on the uniformity of women’s sexual desire (it’s high, and it has little to do with kids). After several reiterations of this, it comes as a surprise to read that John Rock had many female patients whom he was treating for infertility. This doesn’t seem to fit the book’s picture of the 1950s woman single-mindedly in pursuit of sexual experience sans children.
Within this limited horizon, the author cannot engage substantive feminist objections to the Pill. The discussions of the questionable human testing of hormonal contraception in a mental hospital and in Puerto Rico do occupy some considerable pages, but Eig does not give the issue a distinctively feminist interpretation, unlike many feminists in the sixties and seventies and today. These feminists consider the testing and mechanism of the Pill to be symptomatic of a disregard for the well-being of women in favor of other, often anti-woman, goals, such as demographic reduction. Other critics have noted the correlation between the Pill and more divorce, sexually transmitted infections, and objectification of women. The book does include the obligatory epilogue alluding to the possible negative effects of the Pill on society, but it presents nothing substantial or precise. Here, again, the reader gets the impression of an author to whom a feminist hermeneutics does not come naturally.
In a similar vein, the book states that, by 1955, women “recognized that the pursuit of opportunity required independence, and achieving that independence meant avoiding—or at least postponing—motherhood.” But never does The Birth of the Pill query this equation. Even if those women were correct, should we be content with such a state of affairs? The actual experience of women, expressed in the work-family debates, manifests a perpetual discontent with the status quo, which demands that women sacrifice their fertility in order to play a role in the public sphere. Most women do not want to do this. In general, they wish for a balance between work and motherhood, not the total sacrifice of the latter. But this is the world that Margaret Sanger has bequeathed us: a world in which female fertility is the sole scapegoat for female inequality.
Catholicism and the Pill
The book’s most significant gaffes, however, emerge every time Catholicism comes up. The Catholic Church is, in many ways, the story’s fifth protagonist. The book’s treatment of Church teaching, however, is marked by the same vagueness that characterizes its reading of female sexual desires. A cloud of disapproving right-thinking obfuscates. When precise claims are made, they are usually startlingly incorrect.
For example, Eig flatly declares that Thomas Aquinas “extensively and influentially” argued that “all sex without procreation, even within a marriage, amounted to lust.” But this is nonsense that would lead to absurdities in the confessional. To wit: “Bless me, Father, for I think I have sinned. I had sex twelve times with my wife last month, and while she did get pregnant, that would make the other eleven times that did not result in procreation all sins . . . right?”
Eig similarly implies that the Catholic Church condemns any sex performed without the conscious intention of procreation in mind: “sexual intercourse was only for procreation and . . . thinking or acting otherwise was a sin.” Eig appears here, and also in his treatment of the principle of double effect, to confuse the object of the moral act with the intention. In other words, he seems to think the Church insists that the spouses’ motivation for having sex (the intention) should always be procreation.
In fact, what Catholic teaching emphasizes is that the act itself (the moral object) be the kind of act that is ordered to procreation—even if, biologically speaking, it perhaps cannot result in new life (the average female is fertile only about seven to ten days a month). Eig betrays the typical modern preoccupation with what goes on between one’s ears—with a person’s conscious intentions—while the Church is more concerned with what the person is actually doing.
In these and in other cases, Eig comes across as an author who can’t be bothered to engage a position that he has dismissed a priori. Given that even some theologically pedigreed reviewers in Catholic periodicals did not notice his misreadings, perhaps Eig can be excused on this point. Regardless, the misunderstanding seriously mars his narrative.
Still, The Birth of the Pill, despite all the gaps, remains a pleasant, biographically inflected history untroubled by too much complexity. It does not break new historiographical ground, and its blind spots are too significant to make it a work of real insight, but most readers will enjoy their journey between its covers. Upon putting it down, however, they might find themselves musing that their own experiences more resemble life than literature—at least according to David Lodge’s standards.