bathimpact advent calendar, December 4th 1961: female contraceptives become available through the NHS

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On this day in 1961, the contraceptive pill was made available to women through the NHS. This move marked the beginning of a new era of sexual freedom for women, which allowed them to make their own reproductive choices, without having to rely on the willingness of their partners to use contraception.

contraceptiveFrom the 4th December 1961, the ‘Pill’ as it became known as, was only to be prescribed to women when there was a medical reason as to why they should take it. However, the introduction of the Pill created a number of issues in 1961. The Pill was intended to mainly be prescribed to older women who already had children but did not want to have more. The government in 1961 did not want to be seen to be promoting promiscuity amongst younger and unmarried women. The move to family planning clinics prescribing the Pill to unmarried women would not come until 1974.

Today the Pill is entirely free on the NHS, as are other forms of contraception. In 1961, this was not the case. The Pill cost around 17 shillings for a month’s supply, which is around 85p in today’s terms. For those who don’t understand what this means in today’s money here is a little run down: in 1961 a pound was worth 20 shillings. So 17 shillings a month was just over £10 for a year’s supply of the Pill. At this stage in the rather hazy mathematics of it all, it is important to note that in 1961 the average annual income was just under £1,000. And so, if my year 7 level maths is correct, the Pill would on average cost women around 1% of a household’s income. Now that is no doubt a very small percentage, but you can’t help but wonder if the cost initially limited the reach of the Pill.

It cannot be denied that one of the greatest changes brought about by the Pill were social changes. Women became less reliant on men, and the number of shotgun weddings decreased drastically. After the introduction of the Pill, particularly once it was made available for single women, the incidence of people marrying at a very young age so they could have sex, declined dramatically. It’s been said that after the introduction of the Pill it became harder to get married. There wasn’t such a need to rush into marriage if you wanted to have sex or because a woman had accidentally become pregnant.

And so the social makeup of the UK began to evolve. More couples were living together, instead of getting married right away. Fewer accidental pregnancies happened, and so the number of children available. The Pill was amongst one of the major moves in which women and men slowly began to obtain sexual equality. The women of today may take the Pill for granted, but back in 1961 it was a complete revelation.

Photo credit: Surija

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About Author

Liv Hows is a Politics and International Relations and former News & Comment Editor at bathimpact (2012/13). She comments on women’s issues and national politics. She reports on national student issues, local Bath politics and the University of Bath.

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