Carl Djerassi helped invent the birth control pill, but in a sense, we have Eleanor Roosevelt to thank for it.
Djerassi arrived in the U.S. at 16, a penniless Austrian-Jewish immigrant, and soon afterward wrote to Roosevelt asking for help. Her intercession brought him a college scholarship, setting him on a journey of scientific achievement that led to his becoming known as the father of the Pill.
Unconventional, brave and transgressive to the end, Djerassi was the very definition of a Renaissance man. An eminent professor, brilliant chemist and pioneering biomedical entrepreneur, he was celebrated for his development of antihistamines and his work on environmentally friendly pest control. But he also wrote poetry, plays and novels, collected important art, started a cattle ranch and established an artists’ residency program.
Yet Djerassi deserves to be best remembered for the birth control pill, which arguably gave women more freedom than the Declaration of Independence. Unless a woman is free inside her own skin, not subject to involuntary pregnancy, it is difficult if not impossible for her to exercise personal liberty or enjoy the pursuit of happiness. By giving us control of our bodies and reproductive decisions, the Pill has revolutionized our economic, political and sexual lives and enabled us to bear children whom we are financially prepared to support and emotionally committed to nurture and love.
Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, is a writer and social-justice activist
This appears in the February 16, 2015 issue of TIME.
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