Yes, the birth-control pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, is the "birthday girl" at tonight's gala, which is sponsored by Israeli company Teva Pharmaceutical, the biggest maker of generic drugs in the world. Medications don't usually have their own black-tie events—there aren't galas for antibiotics, or chemotherapy, or blood thinners—but the Pill, after all, is so much more than just a pill. It's magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early. "The Pill created the most profound change in human history," declares Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, grabbing the mike on a small stage draped with black curtains dotted with a larger version of the same silver stars from the bar. "Today, we operate on a simple premise—that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny."
A series of toasts follows, from Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, who talks about "vajayjays," to Dr. Ruth, who, though considerably shrunken from her heyday in the mid-eighties, still giddily declares that tonight's event is "better than sex!" Even the grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger has stopped by to collect his award, an "honorable mention." "What a treat!" says Alexander Sanger, jumping onstage. "You know, Margaret thought two or, at the outside, three children was the exact right number. Now I'm fourth of six. When my mom told Margaret the news, there was a long pause as she did the math. Then she said, 'You've disgraced me. I'm going to Europe.' " The crowd laughs loudly. "And let me add one thing," says Sanger, his voice rising triumphantly. "I think it's time we had a male Pill also. I'd like to be around for that pill's 50th birthday!"
It's an endless parade of speakers, actually, with the hullabaloo lasting until 10 p.m., including a slideshow of female icons—Jackie O., Wonder Woman, Murphy Brown, Hillary, Oprah, Sarah Palin—and a constant stream of jokes from buoyant mistress of ceremonies Cybill Shepherd, in a red off-the-shoulder pantsuit that could be from her Moonlighting days. "When I grew up in Tennessee, everything I learned about sex my mother told me," she says, wiggling this way and that. "She said, 'It's disgusting, and you'll hate it, and whatever you do, don't do it before you get married.' Did I mention 'disgusting'?" She shakes her head. "Nevertheless, I became sexually active as a teenager. One day, my mom took me to my family doctor. He wrote something on a prescription pad and said, 'Take one of these every day, and all your periods will be regular.' " She laughs heartily. "What a thrill! He didn't even tell me it was birth control."
Shepherd pauses for dramatic effect. "Can you imagine how different my life would have been if I hadn't gotten the Pill?" she says. "In the South in the sixties, you had limited choices—you could be a wife, a mother, a nurse, or a teacher. If you were really lucky, Miss America." She cocks her head. "Wasn't I Miss America? There's a lot I can't remember. Oh, right, Model of the Year." Soon, she passes the mike to The Daily Show's Samantha Bee, who raises yet another glass. "Today, even though we have pills for everything—to make you calm, make you sleep, and engorge your genitals beyond comprehension—you, the Pill, are so important," says Bee. "So here's to my tiny daily dose of freedom, and also estrogen and progesterone. A combination of the three, really." She smiles, a little bit knowingly. "Interestingly, it's the freedom that causes the bloating."
Even if it is laid on a little thick, there's no question that these women are right: The Pill changed the world. These days, women's twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners. The Pill, which is the most popular form of contraception in the U.S., is still the symbol of that freedom. As a young woman, you feel chic throwing that light plastic pack of dainty pills into your handbag, its retro pastel-colored wheel design or neat snap-to-close box sandwiched between lipstick and cell phone, keys and compact. It's easy to believe the assurances of the guests at the Pierre gala that the Pill holds the answers to empowerment and career success, to say nothing of sexual liberation—the ability to have sex in the same way that guys always have, without guilt, fear, or strings attached. The Pill is part of what makes one a modern woman, conferring adulthood and cool with the swipe of a doctor's pen. "I started taking the Pill when I was a freshman in college, before I even was having sex," says Sahara, 33. "Everyone else was doing it, so I wanted to do it, too."
The Pill is so ingrained in our culture today that girls go on it in college, even high school, and stay on it for five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years. It's not at all out of the ordinary for a woman to be on the Pill from ages 18 to 35, her prime childbearing years. While it is remarkably safe, almost like taking a vitamin, that's a long time to turn one's body into an efficient little non-procreative machine. The Pill (and other hormonal methods of birth control, like the patch and the ring) basically tricks your body into thinking it's pregnant. The medicine takes control of your reproductive processes, pulsing progesterone and estrogen to suppress ovulation. On the Pill, every woman's cycle is exactly the same, at 28 days, even though that is rarely the case in nature, where the majority of periods occur every 26 to 32 days but can take up to 40 or even 50 days. This is a nice effect, but it's not real. And there's a cost to this illusion, one that the women at the Pierre weren't discussing.
The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women's lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women's lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy–esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.