Chicago and The Pill

Chicago and The Pill

One of the greatest advancements in women’s rights, equality, and healthcare was born in Chicago


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Fact checked by Shannon Sparks


For 73-year-old Sue Straus, there is a distinct before and after in learning about the birth control pill.  

Before: As a high school student on Chicago’s North Side, Straus was just becoming sexually active. The pill was not yet widely available, and the thought of pregnancy terrified her. Condoms were the best prevention option Straus knew of, but they weren’t exactly empowering for a teenage girl. 

After: Straus was in college when she first learned that oral contraception existed. She remembers writing about the pill for her school newspaper. The notion of women swallowing a tablet to prevent pregnancy effectively was not only novel but revolutionary. 

“It gave women the freedom to choose what they wanted to do and to have control. You didn’t have to be as nervous about getting pregnant,” says Straus, a board member of Chicago NOW (National Organization for Women). “It was a big deal.” 

That big deal came to life on May 9, 1960, when the Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first birth control pill, called Enovid. G.D. Searle, a pharmaceutical company based in Skokie, manufactured the pill — just a few miles from where Straus grew up. 

In time, The Economist would hail the birth control pill (or commonly, “the pill”) as “one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.” Bloomberg Businessweek ranked it among “the most disruptive ideas in our history.” 

The tiniest of tablets would prove to have a profound, immeasurable impact on marriage and relationships, on employment and the economy, and on equality. 

“You can’t use large enough terms to sum up the impact,” says Chicago author Jonathan Eig, whose book, The Birth of the Pill, chronicles the contraceptive’s intriguing history. “It’s still difficult to calculate or even to grapple with how big of a game changer it was.”

The pill is born

The concept of the pill was the dream of sex educator and nurse Margaret Sanger, who coined the term “birth control.” In 1921, she launched the American Birth Control League, which would later become Planned Parenthood. “She wanted a scientific method of birth control,” Eig writes in his book. “Something magical that would permit a woman to have sex as often as she liked without becoming pregnant.” 

Between 1940 and 1957, the average family had 3.7 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1950, when Sanger met with scientist Gregory Goodwin Pincus about developing the pill, more than half of the states in the U.S. still had anti-birth control laws on the books, and so did the federal government. Common birth control methods for women involved messy and ineffective vaginal jellies, foaming tablets, and antiseptic douching. 

The pursuit of the pill would ultimately involve more than testing different hormones that could prevent pregnancy. It would also test legal, cultural, and gender norms, empowering women to decide when — and if — they wanted to become pregnant.   

While many parties around the country were involved with the pill’s creation story, it has strong Chicago connections. The research behind the pill was largely funded by the philanthropist and activist Katharine Dexter McCormick. McCormick grew up in Chicago and married Stanley Robert McCormick, of the prominent Chicago McCormick family (his father, Cyrus McCormick, invented the mechanical reaper). And the key ingredient in Enovid that helps prevent pregnancy — synthetic progesterone — was developed by Frank Colton, a chemist at Skokie’s G.D. Searle. 

Eig writes that Jack Searle, who ran the small, family-owned pharmacy at the time, had good reasons to take a gamble on the pill. “He had a jump on the competition, which meant the pill, if all went well, might earn a great deal of money. He also believed that this medicine, whatever its flaws, would be a force for good, that it would help women and help the planet.”

The pill comes of age

More than 60 years after the FDA approved the first pill, it remains the most commonly prescribed contraceptive in the U.S., used by 25% of women ages 25 to 44 who use contraception. “I think that is usually people’s first choice, because it’s easy,” says Leslie Moore-Hicks, associate medical director of Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “It’s something that everyone is familiar with.” 

Plus, she adds, there are a number of reasons that people might want to take the birth control pill, aside from contraception. Some opt to take it to regulate their menstrual cycle or decrease premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms. Others take it while going through menopause, to diminish hot flashes or other sensations. 

“I think it is pretty wonderful that this thing that came out so many years ago has been used in so many different ways, by so many different patients, to actually live a more productive life,” Moore-Hicks says. 

In the midst of a tumultuous time for reproductive rights, the birth control pill and other forms of contraception are as important as ever. Moore-Hicks says she feels fortunate to live in a state that prioritizes reproductive freedom, as these laws illustrate:

2019: Governor JB Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act into law, establishing individuals’ right to make decisions about contraception, abortion, and maternity care. 

2021: Pritzker signed a law permitting pharmacists who have undergone required training to provide birth control without a doctor’s prescription, becoming the second state in the Midwest to do so. 

2023: The governor signed into law a reproductive rights and gender-affirming care bill that expands healthcare access and protects healthcare providers and patients from legal attacks by neighboring states. 

Today, it’s easy to take the pill for granted. It’s not only a household name, but it’s also a part of a whole menu of birth control options that people can choose from, just as their parents and even grandparents did. Yet, as guaranteed as the pill feels, Eig cautions that complacency around these rights can be dangerous.  

“Margaret Sanger was absolutely right that women needed something they could control for themselves, and not have to rely on anyone else to control their own bodies. And we still see men, we still see corporate officials, we still see government officials trying to say how women should not be able to control their own bodies,” Eig says. 

That battle continues — not just around birth control, but around abortion rights. 

“It just goes to show how powerful and important this tool is that came into the world more than 60 years ago,” Eig says.

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2024 print issue.