Compiling an Oral History of Oral Contraceptives in Australia: It’s NOW or Never

In this blog, Natasha Szuhan explores the history of oral contraceptives and the need for more voices and stories from early users of the Pill in Australia from 1961-1991.

These last months have been beset with death and debility. Not for me, I am not sick, nor dead. Phew! But my new project has been debilitated by a series of deaths of women who had agreed to be interviewed for my oral history of the Pill in Australia. They became unexpectedly sick and passed quietly into an unwritten history. I know that working closely with older people will mean that perhaps many who agree to participate may not see the project’s conclusion. But they will live on in some ways through it. 

The pop pill dispenser was the second generation of pill. The original came in a bottle and women had to keep their own records of daily use. Image courtesy of the ABC Archives.

My project, An Oral History of Oral Contraceptives in Australia 1961-91, seeks to collect oral histories from women who were of a reproductive age during these decades to tell a history of the Pill as a social and actual technology. The women who had a relationship with oral contraceptives at this time are vital to this history. It’s about their experiences so without these women, the project has no legs. Inspired by the words of historian Martyn Lyon, I want this project to ‘re-evaluate’ individual experiences and treat people as ‘active agents’ that shape their own lives and the world around them. 

By 1961, the Pill had gone from being the stuff of science fiction – does anyone remember Huxley’s ‘Malthusian Belts’ being stuffed with contraceptives? – to a reality. In the approximately two decades previous, scientific knowledge about female reproductive systems and hormones had enabled doctors and scientists to understand and chart female menstrual cycles sufficiently to identify that the ebb and flow of certain hormones indicated fertile or infertile periods. Other researchers noted that applying or withholding sex hormones led to maturation and virility. These discoveries led to a rush to synthesise female sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) with the hope that this would facilitate effective birth control and family planning.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger, an advocate of birth control in the early twentieth century. Bain News Service, 1917. Image courtesy of the Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

All this knowledge was then applied by biologists, endocrinologists, and pharmacologists to develop and trial methods of applying synthetic female hormones to control (both limiting and promoting) fertility. By the mid-1950s, there was success – researchers in the United States had developed an ingestible drug that was noted to have the effect of regulating menstruation and assisting the infertile to conceive. An (apparently) unintended consequence was that the women that took the drug were also rendered temporarily infertile as long as they took the pills daily.

In 1961, the first oral contraceptive, Anovlar, was released onto the market in Australia. Its arrival was heralded across the West as a triumph for science and technology (and women) over the confines of nature. For the first time, contraception was effectively decoupled from the sex act and if used perfectly the risk of pregnancy was effectively nil. The arrival of this wonder drug is still held up by historians as one of the greatest achievements of modernity. As mentioned in the Economist in 1993 the importance of the Pill is said to be on par with the ‘discovery of fire, the development of toolmaking, hunting, agriculture, urbanism, scientific medicine and nuclear energy’. 

This legacy is the one that has been maintained and promoted in the almost 65 years since the product was first sold en masse. The social and cultural importance that has been attributed to this scientific and technological advancement has then fundamentally shaped the histories that have been written about it. It is a scientific technology first – and a social tool second. The histories of the drug and its effects that were written in the first fifty years after its prescription and mass consumption take as their focus the men (for they were mostly men) who developed, trialled, marketed, prescribed, and regulated the drug. When women get a look in, they are either high profile birth control advocates or wealthy philanthropists. It is only in the last fifteen years that any real focus has been paid to contraceptive users as significant historical actors – and most of those histories focus on the pre-Pill era. Oral contraceptives remain understudied as a bottom-up social phenomenon.

That is what I intend to rectify with this oral history project. Histories of the few men and women who played a role in creating and disseminating the Pill have already been written.

This project is bringing the voices, stories, values, and desires of Australian Pill users to the fore – to see how their accounts comport with or contradict traditional institutional, top-down histories. Based on preliminary discussions and the findings from pilot trial interviews, I will treat the users of the drug as ‘technologists’; because participants are adamant that their sexual and contraceptive choices were active as was their dedicated adherence to the regimented daily consumption of the drug to experience its contraceptive effects. This means that women perceived that they had a stake in success of the technology as a contraceptive and a tool facilitating their own autonomy.

Testing the participants stated life aspirations against their relationship to contraceptive technologies means that the drug’s impact on the evolution of feminine identity, sexual politics, and socio-cultural, family, professional and educational ideals in Australia during these decades and beyond can be articulated. The Pill was not the social panacea for sexual and gender based oppressions that was promised but it did help to change sexual mores and dynamics by altering some sexual scripts and hierarchies via the alleviation of pregnancy risks relating to sex. At least, this is what participants have asserted.  

After conducting more interviews, I expect to understand how potential technologists learned about, interpreted, understood, made choices to engage with or not, weighted benefits and risks, applied, routinised, rejected, discussed, and felt about the technology over the course of their lives. And further, I will speak to technocrats and scientists to test if and how prospective pill users were factored into scientific, technological, standardisation and regulatory work. They must have been as the drug was both revered and reviled during these decades due to the public’s amazement at the technology’s effectiveness, and later the discovery of its carcinogenic, hepatic and thromboembolic dangers.

This project will ultimately document the history of the Pill in Australia; and actively incorporate the women who used and/or rejected the technology as a prime source of its data. These women’s sexual, reproductive, and contraceptive lives, practices, and decisions would otherwise be lost to history. And the fact that two women that I loved and respected, who would have made valuable contributions to (this) history have passed away before I could record their stories feels like a bigger loss because their knowledge and experiences are irreplicable.

For more information about the project or to express interest in participating, please visit:

Natasha Szuhan is a Lecturer in history at the Australian National University. Her most recent book, The Family Planning Association and Contraceptive Science and Technology in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain (Palgrave Macmillan), was released in 2022. Her research focuses on contraceptive and reproductive technologies at the intersection of feminism(s), autonomy, socio-cultural history, and science and medicine in the twentieth century.  

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