How I Had Sex in 1950

Navigating Birth Control Before the Pill

I was a virgin on my wedding night. This is neither a confession nor a brag, simply a statement of fact. It was expected. The year was 1950. Horror stories of how giving birth “out of wedlock” would ruin one’s life were common. They were told by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts to keep you on the straight and narrow.

No one in my home talked about contraception; I’m sure I wouldn’t have known what the word meant if I had heard it. That is, until I told my parents I was getting married. My boyfriend and I were juniors in college when we decided it’d be a great idea to marry during Christmas break (even though we both had term papers to write). My parents were not pleased. To be more accurate, they were terrified. Their first question: “What if you get pregnant?”

That had not entered my mind. While my parents spent the rest of the evening bombarding my future husband and me with practical questions about money, housing, and school, the last question was the same as the first: “What if you get pregnant?”

We were all emotionally drained by then, and the evening ended with nothing resolved. We reiterated that we didn’t need my parents’ permission to get married, but we wanted their blessing. Mother went to bed in tears.

The next day my mother decided the two of us needed to have a serious conversation about my plans to finish school. Naturally, I would finish; my boyfriend and I both planned to finish our B.A.s, I would start teaching, and he would go on to graduate school for his M.F.A and Ph.D. That’s when she brought up the word “pregnant” again. She asked how I was going to avoid it.

I became extremely uncomfortable. We had never really talked about sex before. She told me there were three available ways of avoiding pregnancy: abstinence, condoms for men, and diaphragms for women. The only foolproof choice was abstinence, and if I was getting married, that was no longer an option. Mother made an appointment for me with her doctor to talk about getting a diaphragm.

On the day of my doctor’s visit, my boyfriend made a scene. I didn’t understand why he was so upset until he spelled it out for me. (Once again, I remind the reader that the year was 1950. My future husband was as much a product of the time as I was.) He didn’t want the doctor to be the first to penetrate my vagina. As it turned out, the doctor told me he couldn’t fit me with a diaphragm until I had been married for about six months, because I was so small. For the first time in my life I worried about getting pregnant. The doctor recommended a spermicidal lubricant and said it was the best he could do before I was married. He recommended condoms for my boyfriend.

My husband nixed the idea of condom use. He had been issued condoms while in the army during World War II (as were all military personnel), and he found his limited experience with them unsatisfactory. So, five months after I was married, I went back to the doctor (not pregnant) and got my diaphragm. It was a cervical barrier made of soft latex or silicone, shaped into a dome with a spring molded into the rim. The spring was meant to create a seal against the walls of the vagina. The doctor explained that the diaphragm was invented in 1916 in Europe. Margaret Sanger, an American birth control advocate, discovered diaphragms in the Netherlands and illegally imported them into the U.S. By 1940, after diaphragms became legal, one-third of married women were using the device. But it was–and is–not a 100-percent-reliable anti-pregnancy tool, and it can cause urinary tract infections.

By the 1960s the intrauterine device (IUD) and the oral contraceptive pill were in use, and, by the 1970s, the diaphragm was obsolete. It hadn’t been convenient for me, and I did occasionally have painful urinary tract infections, but it worked. I never became pregnant. I was grateful it was available during the lean years we went through.

I was a high school teacher and principal from the 1960s to the 1990s and saw attitudes concerning sex change a lot among the young. In many ways, I was glad to see this. I wish I hadn’t been a virgin on my wedding night. I don’t think the lack of experience and choice that I came of age with was a good thing. But even as the young saw more and more about sex all over–on TV commercials, in everyday conversation–they also seemed to place less and less importance on it.

Also, to my amazement, many of my students, despite being sexually active, knew almost as little as I did in 1950. One former student showed up at school to show us her new baby. She’d married another former student who was now in the service. I told her I thought they were planning to wait several years before having children. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I wouldn’t let him near me when I was having my period.” Another student came to my office to tell me she was pregnant and that she and her boyfriend wanted to keep the baby. I asked if they were planning to get married. “Oh no,” she said. “I’m not old enough to get married!” Part of the problem has been a kind of manufactured ignorance: no one wants to be labeled a slut or a dude who just wants to brag about numbers. If you don’t have a steady boyfriend and you’re on the pill, what does that make you? If you’re a guy who carries condoms around all the time, what does that tell a “nice” girl about you? Drug and alcohol use also contributes to the problem.

When I was in charge of the teen mothers program for the school district, we always had dozens of pregnant teens enrolled. Even in this time of contraceptive choices, they kept showing up. Condoms can rip, withdrawal before ejaculation may not be quick enough, a girl can forget to take her pill, a friend with a cute baby may be getting a lot of attention, or mama may miss having a baby around the house. Many of the girls also admitted that they just wanted to please their boyfriends.

But the good news is that the teen mothers program no longer exists in the school district. In 2010, teenage pregnancy rates dropped to an all-time low: there were fewer teenage mothers in 2010 than in any year since 1946, around when I was finishing high school. Our teenagers are getting better at taking care of themselves, and (provided some politicians don’t take us back 50 years) they’re using contraception properly. Women of all ages have gained a kind of independence since 1950. We’re finally figuring out how to use it.

Jacqueline Coulette, a retired principal and teacher, is an educational consultant who lives in Pasadena.

*Photo courtesy of Diamond Farah.


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