March is Women’s History Month in the United States and yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. It seems only fitting that today the SIUE Women’s Studies blog kicks off a short-running daily series of blog posts inspired by the 7 Songs in 7 Days challenge popular on social media. We may well see more than 7 songs. But 7 songs at least there shall be, all with a feminist bent. We begin with one of the oldest nominated by a group of feminist faculty and students at SIUE and elsewhere whom I solicited for suggestions and descriptions of why the song is feminist. By far the most substantive discussion of a feminist song in our series, I give you Prof. Sharon McGee’s consideration of the famous country song by Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”, including excerpts from a rare interview McGee hunted down which Lynn did with Playgirl magazine.
–Alison Reiheld, Director of the SIUE Women’s Studies program
recorded by Loretta Lynn, 1972; released, 1975
album: Back to the Country, MCA Records
writers: Lorene Allen, Don McHan, and T. D. Bayless
Read on while you listen!
In 1960, Envoid, the first oral contraceptive pill, received approval from the Federal Drug Administration (May 4-5). Oral contraception became commonly known as “the Pill” and its introduction was to solve many of the world’s problems such as overpopulation and poverty in particular, but “eventually the pill took its place not as a miracle drug that would save the world, but as an important tool in women’s efforts to achieve control over their lives” (May 6). The Pill was introduced just as the second wave of feminism was taking shape. Women, particularly in urban areas, were advocating on their own behalves for workplace equity, passage of the Equal Rights amendment, and reproductive freedom. At this time, women’s opportunities were limited: get married by the early 20s, have babies, keep the home. With the advent of the Pill women were empowered to control the timing of when—or if—to have children. Loretta Lynn made sure no one could ignore it, at a time when people tried.
For those of us who have had access to contraception for all of our childbearing lives, it’s easy to forget how singularly important the Pill (and its successors) has been for us to have the freedom to shape our lives and gain opportunities in the workplace and beyond. Arguably, the Pill has positively shaped women’s lives more than any other invention of the 20th Century.
It is also easy to forget that even once invented, women still, legally, did not have a right to it. In 1965, seven years before Loretta Lynn recorded her famous song praising “The Pill” and ten years before it was released, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut struck down Connecticut’s law that prohibited married couples from using birth control, giving married couples Constitutional protection for choosing to use birth control.
Unmarried women still could not access birth control legally until the Supreme Court expanded that protection, ruling in 1972’s Eisenstadt vs. Baird case that unmarried couples had the same Constitutional right to birth control as married ones. In 1977, the Court once again expanded contraception rights in Carey vs. Population Services International and gave pharmaceutical companies the right to market and sell contraception to teenagers.
While the Pill was heralded as an important tool for addressing large social issues, it created social upheaval—the kind that causes states to create laws prohibiting women access to it. While some men responded positively to the Pill, others did not: “Although some men found it liberating to be free of the possibility of impregnating their partners, others found the power and autonomy it gave to women threatening to their masculine egos” (May 6). Some women, particularly older women and those with traditional values, found the Pill a threat to society. Conversations about the Pill also implied (or even included!) discussions about sexual activity whether it be between married people or unmarried ones, discussions that were quite unseemly in many social circles.
It’s no wonder, then, that when country music superstar Loretta Lynn, who at that time had been named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and had been a regular on the Grand Ole Opry for years, recorded “The Pill” in 1972, her record label wasn’t interested in releasing it.
Once “The Pill” was released in 1975, the Grand Ole Opry almost didn’t let her sing it on stage. In an interview in Playgirl[i], Lynn says, “You know I sung it three times at the Grand Ole Opry one night, and I found out a week later that the Grand Ole Opry had a three-hour meting, and they weren’t going to let me [sing it]. …[I]f they hadn’t let me sing the song, I’d have told them to shove the Grand Ole Opry!” (Cahn 91). Once the song was released, it was banned by over 60 country radio stations and was even the topic of sermons by pastors who told parishioners that it was evil (Windeler). In an interview with Dan Rather, Lynn said every time a song of hers was banned, she knew it was going to be a hit!
Lynn, who was married at 14 and had four children by 18 (and a set of twins later), was born into abject poverty in Butcher Holler, Kentucky in 1932. In 1975 when “The Pill” was released, she was almost 40 years old, mother of six and grandmother of four. Many of her songs address the issues faced by women who are rearing children and living paycheck to paycheck. In 1975, Robert Windeler called Lynn “the poet laureate of blue-collar women—those who marry young and get pregnant often. In the songs she writes and those that are written for her, Loretta speaks to the unliberated, work-worn American females.” While “The Pill” might be her most famous song that was banned, it wasn’t the only one: in the 1960s and 70s a woman who was singing songs about how women could be strong—especially rural women—was not going to go unnoticed.
Lynn found it important to sing about the the pill because she knew first-hand how important it was to women: “If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ‘em like popcorn. The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s. But I wouldn’t necessarily have had six and I sure would have spaced ‘em better” (Windeler). Her song, “The Pill,” also made an impact on her traditional audience—rural women. Lynn recounts that she was told by a doctor that the song “has reached more people out in the country and done more than all the government programs put together” for spreading the word about—and acceptability of—contraception (Cahn 91).
The song is a one-sided conversation between a wife who tells her husband that he promised “to show her the world” but that all she’s seen “is a bed and doctor bill.” She explains,
All these years I’ve stayed at home
While you’ve had all your fun
And every year that’s gone by
Another baby’s come.
The narrator is ready to make changes on “nursery hill” by throwing out her “maternity dress” and tearing apart her “nest.” She assures her husband that there’ll be more time for sex now that won’t have to worry about becoming pregnant.
During the very years that the Supreme Court was hearing cases related to the legality of contraception, Lynn was singing and (sometimes) writing songs about the challenges women face when rearing many children, living with men worn down by the weight of earning a living, and existing in situation where there is little hope for something more. In the last few years, reproductive choice and access to contraception has been threatened. We owe a debt to Loretta Lynn, who may not have written Supreme Court decisions but who nonetheless played a significant role in creating acceptance for “The Pill.”
Cahn, Elliot. “Loretta Lynn.” Playgirl (August 1975): 90-91. Print.
Lynn, Loretta, perf. “The Pill.” Back to the Country. comp. Lorene Allen, Don McHan, T. D.
Bayless. MCA, 1975.
May, Elaine Tyler. America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York:
Basic Books, 2010. Google Books.
Windeler, Robert. “Loretta Lynn’s ‘Pill’ is Hard for Some Fans to Swallow.” People. 3.12 (March 31, 1975). Web.
[i] Special thanks to my colleague Geoff Schmidt for finding and ordering this issue of Playgirl for me!