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Waking Up From the Pill

Fifty years ago, birth-control pills gave women control of their bodies, while making it easy to forget their basic biology—until in some cases, it’s too late.

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On a cold night in mid-October, a couple hundred bejeweled women in gowns file into the Pierre with their dates for a very special 50th-birthday party. Before retiring to a three-hour lobster-and-steak dinner in the hotel’s main ballroom, they collect oversize spoons of foie gras as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” blasts from overhead speakers in a robin’s-egg-blue reception room, with a bar festooned with the kind of miniature silver stars that teachers give exemplary students. Neat stacks of East Village party napkins with illustrations of women in vintage clothing rest next to rows of Champagne glasses, each with a different quip at the bottom: “Let’s ignore our mother’s well-meant advice,” says one; “She thought of him fondly as ‘Plan B,’ ” says another; and a wide-eyed Lucille Ball covers her mouth with a yellow-gloved hand in shock at some mishap on the next, asking, “Has anyone seen my hormones?” In the middle of the room, on a tall pedestal, there’s an enormous cake, with lettering that spells out ONE SMALL PILL. ONE GIANT LEAP FOR WOMANKIND. ONE MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN HISTORY.

Yes, the birth-control pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, is the “birthday girl” at tonight’s gala, which is sponsored by Israeli company Teva Pharmaceutical, the biggest maker of generic drugs in the world. Medications don’t usually have their own black-tie events—there aren’t galas for antibiotics, or chemotherapy, or blood thinners—but the Pill, after all, is so much more than just a pill. It’s magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early. “The Pill created the most profound change in human history,” declares Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, grabbing the mike on a small stage draped with black curtains dotted with a larger version of the same silver stars from the bar. “Today, we operate on a simple premise—that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”

A series of toasts follows, from Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, who talks about “vajayjays,” to Dr. Ruth, who, though considerably shrunken from her heyday in the mid-eighties, still giddily declares that tonight’s event is “better than sex!” Even the grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger has stopped by to collect his award, an “honorable mention.” “What a treat!” says Alexander Sanger, jumping onstage. “You know, Margaret thought two or, at the outside, three children was the exact right number. Now I’m fourth of six. When my mom told Margaret the news, there was a long pause as she did the math. Then she said, ‘You’ve disgraced me. I’m going to Europe.’ ” The crowd laughs loudly. “And let me add one thing,” says Sanger, his voice rising triumphantly. “I think it’s time we had a male Pill also. I’d like to be around for that pill’s 50th birthday!”

It’s an endless parade of speakers, actually, with the hullabaloo lasting until 10 p.m., including a slideshow of female icons—Jackie O., Wonder Woman, Murphy Brown, Hillary, Oprah, Sarah Palin—and a constant stream of jokes from buoyant mistress of ceremonies Cybill Shepherd, in a red off-the-shoulder pantsuit that could be from her Moonlighting days. “When I grew up in Tennessee, everything I learned about sex my mother told me,” she says, wiggling this way and that. “She said, ‘It’s disgusting, and you’ll hate it, and whatever you do, don’t do it before you get married.’ Did I mention ‘disgusting’?” She shakes her head. “Nevertheless, I became sexually active as a teenager. One day, my mom took me to my family doctor. He wrote something on a prescription pad and said, ‘Take one of these every day, and all your periods will be regular.’ ” She laughs heartily. “What a thrill! He didn’t even tell me it was birth control.”

Shepherd pauses for dramatic effect. “Can you imagine how different my life would have been if I hadn’t gotten the Pill?” she says. “In the South in the sixties, you had limited choices—you could be a wife, a mother, a nurse, or a teacher. If you were really lucky, Miss America.” She cocks her head. “Wasn’t I Miss America? There’s a lot I can’t remember. Oh, right, Model of the Year.” Soon, she passes the mike to The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee, who raises yet another glass. “Today, even though we have pills for everything—to make you calm, make you sleep, and engorge your genitals beyond comprehension—you, the Pill, are so important,” says Bee. “So here’s to my tiny daily dose of freedom, and also estrogen and progesterone. A combination of the three, really.” She smiles, a little bit knowingly. “Interestingly, it’s the freedom that causes the bloating.”


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