Giving Birth to the Pill

Katharine (Dexter) McCormick was born in 1875 in Michigan. After her father died when she was 14, she and her mother moved to Boston. Katharine earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from MIT with plans to become a doctor. After her marriage to Robert McCormick, she gave up her plans for a medical career. He was the son of Cyrus McCormick and heir to the International Harvester fortune. Ironically, she ended up doing more for women’s health without a degree than she probably could have ever achieved as a doctor.

Two years after her marriage, her husband was diagnosed with what we now call schizophrenia. Three years later Robert was declared incompetent and she became his legal guardian.

Katharine was an advocate for gender equality, fighting for women’s right to vote. When the 19th Amendment was passed, she became the vice president of the League of Women Voters. It was through those efforts that she became acquainted with Margaret Sanger.

She began to work with Sanger on birth control issues. Using her wealth from her husband’s inheritance, she began to smuggle diaphragms into the U.S. from Europe. No one expected that a woman of her social standing would be a smuggler.

In 1953, Katharine met Gregory Pincus who had been working on developing a pill for birth control. He had run out of funds when the drug company denied him additional support. Katharine decided that she would provide him with the necessary funds. Over a span of 14 years, she contributed what would be equivalent to more than $20 million in today’s dollar value. The pill was eventually tested and approved by the FDA.

Katharine provided support for other worthwhile causes as well. She provided funding for endocrinology research hoping to find a cure for her husband’s schizophrenia. She also supported women’s access to STEM education as well as the arts. When she died, her will provided funding for the training of women physicians.

The name Katharine McCormick is little-known today, and that’s a shame. While she never realized her dream of becoming a medical doctor, women throughout the world have benefitted from the support she provided for the creation of the first birth control pill.                                                                                                                   

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“Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.” – Margaret Sanger (women’s rights activist)

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