Legalising Contraception: France's Adoption of The Pill

By Natacha Maurin - History and Spanish Student @ St Catharine's College, Cambridge

The dual contraceptive pill emerged from the mind of US biologist Dr Gregory Pincus during the 1950s, and was introduced in Western Europe during the sexual liberation years of the 1960s and 1970s. With this small white tablet, taken daily, women were able to have a choice in their own reproduction. The pill is often quoted as a major factor in women’s sexual emancipation, and brandished as the greatest medical invention of the last century.

In these decades within some European countries, attitudes towards sex had loosened and the pill helped contribute to an atmosphere wherein women had more control over their reproductivity. Nevertheless, the apparition of the pill was not necessarily a turning point for all women nor did it create change throughout Europe.

Despite the medicalization of contraception, not all European countries gained quick access to the drug, nor did the particular cultural and demographic factors pertinent to each state allow for the pill to be a turning point. Looking at a specific example, such as France, allows one to understand how the legalisation of contraception did not immediately equal a total change in women’s societal position in the 1960s.

In France, change did not occur quickly, nor was the pill seen as a great tool of liberation. French culture had been heavily steeped in pro-natalist secularism and balanced out by strong Catholic attitudes which permeated society. Combined with repressive French laws, this did not create a welcoming environment for the pill to come into use in the country. Thus, the medication was not legalised in France until 1967, six years later than its northern neighbour England.

Its legalisation was also not brought about through a lens of sexual liberation. Those who argued for the pill successfully in France did not do so within the framework of free love nor of sexual exploration, for which the 1960s are heralded today. Rather, it was articulated by new Protestant groups such as the Young Women. The pill was seen as a medical tool, for women’s well-being, but also as a way to keep the marital union happy. Indeed, only married women were able to access the coveted drug.

Feminist circles did not take so kindly to the arrival of oral contraception. Although initially many welcomed it, after a while it began to be seen by some as another form of male domination. They saw this movement of sexual liberation as particularly beneficial for men. As well as this, advertisement on the pill remained limited throughout the country. Thus, it is not surprising to find out that by the 1970s, only a measly 6% of women in France were taking oral contraception.

Although the pill was available to women, and its powers to bring control to them were real, France shows how its legalisation did not equal an immediate turning point and liberation of women’s sexuality. First, societal constraints had to be shunned, before this could occur. A general movement to more left-wing politics, as well as growing protestantism in the country in the later decades of the 20th century created the conditions needed for there to be a wider takeup of the medication.

Following this, the rate of usage of the pill in France grew rapidly from 34% in 1988 to 40% in 1994. One of the greatest medical inventions of the 20th century, as it is often proclaimed, the pill’s effect was not immediate. Rather, as Ann Taylor Allen argues, the pill’s immediate repercussions are often exaggerated. For its true abilities to be revealed, society first had to change.

Further reading:

  1. Allen, A (2005) Feminism and Motherhood in Western Europe, 1890-1970 New York: Palgrave Macmillan

  2. C. DeBellaigue, (2004) ‘Women, Work and Politics in Modern Europe’, Historical Journal

  3. Duchen C. et al. (eds.) (2000), When the War Was Over: Women, War and Peace in Europe, 1940-1956, Leicester University Press : London

  4. Regulska J. and Smith, B. (eds.) (2012) Women and gender in postwar Europe: from Cold War to European Union

  5. Timm, A. Sanborn, J (2007) Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe, Oxford: Berg.