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It’s a small wonder

Have sex tonight, and thanks to a small pill, there's a 99pc certainty you won't get pregnant. Half a century ago a woman was likely to have at least half a dozen babies during her reproductive years.

If she was poor and got pregnant without a wedding ring, there was a risk her family would put her in a Magdalene laundry.

The 50th anniversary of the birth control pill asks young women to understand the excruciatingly restrictive lives of the women who went before them in the female tribe.

In an era of Facebook, casual holiday sex in Ibiza and online dating, it's a tall order.

Imagine not being free to have passionate sex with a man? Or not being able to space your family out without jeopardising your sanity with more heirs than you have bread to feed?

Attitudes towards women have changed radically. "I remember a story from that era about a farmer who had six daughters and then had a son and went about talking about how he had to do the best by his child," says Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History in UCD.

"He was going to give his son the best education and the best of everything, and was talking like he had his first child ever," he says.

Contraceptives were legally banned in Ireland in 1935, and being caught importing or selling any form of contraception carried stiff penalties.

The 1979 Contraception Bill made it legal to provide contraceptives for family planning purposes -- and almost a decade after the Pill went on sale in the States.

In spite of being known for her own large family, Miriam O'Callaghan hosted a Bayer HealthCare lunch in the Fallon and Byrne restaurant to celebrate the progression of women in Ireland over the past 50 years, as well as to mark 50 years of the Pill.

"I think everyone would agree that when it came about 50 years ago it was a revolutionary thing for the women of Ireland," Miriam said.

"I know it may seem a bit ironic because I have a lot of children myself but I'd have to admit I think it is a very good thing.

"At the end of the day it allows women to go out and work and have a career and plan their families around that," she said.

"Life has changed for women over the course of those 50 years but only a certain amount. You just have to be prepared to work 10 times as hard as the man if you want the job and the family," she added.

So taken for granted is the Pill today, it rarely gets mentioned unless it is taking a hit -- like being accused of devaluing family life, or contributing to a rise in single mothers.

Today, women complain of having too much choice -- whether it is to work or stay at home, to marry young or late, to have children or not to have children.


"It is perverse for any young woman to complain about having too much choice in the 21st century," says historian Prof Ferriter. "It shows a real lack of understanding of the sacrifices made by previous generations of women.

"During the 1970s many things were taboo, like rape and abuse and domestic violence. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre came about after a group of women mobilised themselves after the rape of a young teenage girl on the streets of Dublin."

At the Fallon and Byrne lunch to mark 50 years of the Pill, he gave a talk entitled Down Through The Decades: The Changing Role of Irish Women.

"We still have inequality today," he says. "It's still women who bear the responsibility of caring for the elderly. We still have to get to grips with stay-at-home dads. There is a huge imbalance of power at government level. In Spain, over half the parliament is female.

"I would like to see a female-dominant Government here, to test out what a country led by family-friendly polices would be like. I would like to get a sense of the changes women would make."

Women are represented across business, academia, politics and medicine, yet are hugely under-represented in key decision-making roles, he feels.

"It's total bulls**t to say there isn't a glass ceiling in operation. You only have to look at the imbalance of gender at the top," he says.

How significant was the Pill to women? "Women in the 1960s did not want to follow down the same route as their grandmothers and mothers and have multiple births and eight or nine children. The Pill changed a woman's family life and social position.

"Women gained control of their fertility, and were able to pursue an education, career, and choose if and when to have a family.

"In 1966, 5pc of women worked. And in 2006, over 50pc of women of working age had jobs. It contributed to the Celtic Tiger.

"The Pill did not start a social revolution, but it was a huge part of one. It gave women choice on a scale they had never had it before," Prof Ferriter says.

How did the Pill change men's lives? "Men were golden boys, brought up to be the heads of households, and to believe they were entitled to have lives organised around them," he says.

"The head of the household is now a defunct concept. Men have gained much from being able to plan families, and having women in the workforce. As much as the Pill has changed women's lives, it has also changed men's roles significantly in the past 50 years."