By the early 1950's, Sanger’s campaign had met only limited success. Comstock laws were still on the books in thirty states across the country. And though she had managed to broaden access to diaphragms and condoms, women still did not have a foolproof method of birth control.
What Sanger dreamed of was a simple pill. Now seventy-one, she began searching for a scientist willing to defy both law and custom.
She found him at a laboratory in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He was the colorful and brilliant reproductive physiologist, Gregory Pincus.
As a young scientist at Harvard, he had been a rising star. In 1934, Pincus reported that he had accomplished the first in-vitro fertilization of animals.
The press does not treat Pincus’s remarkable breakthrough in a very flattering way. They’re very concerned about the possibility of human engineering of the reproductive process. And one magazine in particular takes a photograph of Pincus with a cigarette dangling from his mouth in the most sinister light imaginable, saying “Scientist Engineers First Rabbit Embryo.” And it conjured up images of the mad scientist at work, playing with human life in a test tube.
Harvard denied him tenure. And Pincus set up his own small research laboratory. For the next decade, he would struggle to keep the lab solvent, even serving as his own janitor.
By 1951, Pincus was desperate. His research into hormones had been slow to produce results. His client, the pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle, cut off his funding -- and declared Pincus “a lamentable failure.”
That same year, he was introduced to Margaret Sanger.
The meeting with Gregory Pincus was a nirvana for my grandmother. It must have been absolutely stunning finally to find a man of science who understood the basic science of reproduction.
Pincus told her that hormones held the key to a contraceptive pill. But the research would cost much more than the few thousand dollars Sanger had available. Without millions, he explained, the pill would remain only a dream.
An Mrs. Degree...
As the pill project stalled, the country was in the midst of the largest baby boom in its history. Most women were married by age 19, and more than half of them were pregnant within the first seven months.
Well, the 1950’s... was also a time when it was expected that when you did go to college, you would find a husband. And it was that old “What are you graduating with,” and you hoped it was that “Mrs. degree.” And most of us did find our husbands in college. And where I went to college- I went to nursing school- and there was 88 of us. And about 80 of us either married right before we graduated, right after we graduated, or within 6 months. And so you know, looking back, it wasn’t because that was the “one and only,” but it was the one that was there.
Once married, women’s roles were narrowly defined.