by Casey N. Cep
Loretta Lynn wrote and recorded “The Pill” in 1972. Her label didn’t release it until 1975, but three years wasn’t long enough to cool the controversy stoked by Lynn, one of the biggest names in country music, singing the praises of oral contraception to an audience of “unliberated, work-worn American females.” The Associated Press’s lede about the song in February of that year read, “To some, Loretta Lynn’s new song ‘The Pill’ might be too bitter to swallow. But to the country music star it has the sweet taste of success,” selling some 25,000 copies a day. The New York Times even gave it a few column inches under the headline “Unbuckling The Bible Belt.”
Despite the coy coverage, Lynn’s song is anything but bashful. Not once, but seven times a wife delights in reminding her husband that she’s “got the pill.” Angry that he’s running around town while “all [she’s] seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill,” she announces that her birth control is evening the score. “I’m tired of all your crowing how you and your hens play,” the wife says, and then threatens that she’s headed out on the town, too.
By Lynn’s own account, she married at age 13 and had four children before she turned 18; by the time she released the song, she’d had two more. “I’ve had six kids and I’ll take the pill anytime,” Lynn told the Associated Press in 1975, and then made light of her own naïveté about pregnancy: “I didn’t know at first what was causin’ all this.” A little stage play of sorts, almost as delightful as the song itself, unfolded during the interview:
“I went to the doctor the first time and he said, ‘You’re pregnant.’
I said, ‘What’s that?’
He said, ‘You’re gonna have a baby.’
I said, ‘I can’t have no baby!’
He said, ‘You’re married, aren’t you? Sleeping with your husband aren’t you?’
I said, ‘Yes and yes.’
He said, ‘Well then you’re gonna have a baby.’
“I tell you,” Lynn says, “if they’d had the pill a little earlier, I think I’d have eaten ’em like popcorn.” If she seems cavalier in the interview, she seems even more so in the song. “I’m tearing down your brooder house,” the wife jokes, announcing “this chicken” is taking control of her own eggs. The “incubator is overused,” but, with the pill, “roosting time” is becoming a time for play, perhaps even with other roosters.
The song was banned on some country stations, but that failed to keep it from spreading. The pill was already popular, but Lynn’s lyrics seemed to laugh at the worst fears of those who opposed it: weakening families (even though the wife in the song already has several children) and breaking homes (even though the husband in the song is already sleeping around). The comedy, of course, is that the wife singing is actually pleading with her husband to stop cheating on her; the pill might, in fact, save the couple from divorce.
People Magazine found a preacher in West Liberty, Kentucky, who devoted a sermon to denouncing Lynn and counted at least 60 stations that refused to play the song. Also denouncing Lynn was W.R. Morris, author of “The Country Sound” column that appeared an Alabama newspaper, The Times Daily. “Controversial Song Makes Money For Artist Despite Ban By Stations” was the title of Morris’s column for February 16, 1975.
“Personally,” Morris wrote, “I feel that the song is poorly written and done in poor taste.” Morris was even more critical in his claim that “if an unknown female artist had cut the song, no radio station in the country would have played it. But since Loretta Lynn recorded it, some stations will spin it.”
This is, of course, not true. The song would have gotten play no matter who wrote or recorded it, but because Lynn, a Grand Ole Opry star and the only woman to be named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association, did both, women not only listened to the lyrics, but followed her advice. Her songs, about alcoholism and adultery, heartache and honky tonks, standing up to your husband and the women he was cheating with, coming from nothing and having it all, made her, according to People Magazine,the “poet laureate of blue-collar women.”
So while W.R. Morris of Alabama thought that “Loretta should let the welfare workers tell folks about the pill while she concentrates on recording some good, clean country music songs,” part of the trouble was that those workers had been talking about the pill for 15 years already, but not all women felt it was safe or socially acceptable. The Catholic Church had taken a moral stance against it, and the United States Senate had only a few years before held hearings on its medical safety.
That a folk hero like Lynn, whose life and career were devoted simultaneously to women’s independence and the importance of family, would not only admit to taking the pill, but craft her admission into a cutting attack on a cheating spouse meant that many women, especially rural women, considered oral contraception an option for the first time. You could, the song argued, have children, love your husband, and oppose adultery, all while still taking the pill.
A song like “The Pill” would still raise eyebrows today, not because the pill isn’t taken daily by millions of women, but because it says candidly what so many women are expected not to acknowledge, much less advertise. I cannot imagine what it was like to hear the song for the first time in 1975. I can’t say I’ve ever heard it on the radio, but I remember the first time I ever heard it. It was 2002, and Tim McGraw had just released the first single from his new album, “Red Rag Top” a story of young love like so many others on country radio, except for the turn one minute in, when McGraw sings: “Well the very first time her mother met me, her green-eyed girl was a mother to be for two weeks” and then a few beats later, “We were young and wild, we decided not to have a child.”
I remember catching my breath when McGraw confesses, “We did what we did and we tried to forget and we swore up and down there would be no regrets.” It was, I’m sure, the first time I had heard anything about abortion in a country song; it was also, I’m fairly certain, the first time I’d heard such an honest, non-health-textbook account of the experience anywhere in pop culture.
I was taken by the song, and when I asked my mother if she’d heard it and what if anything she’d made of it and whether she thought country music was becoming more progressive or more honest or anything like it. She listened to all my excited questions, told me Tim McGraw had nothing on Loretta Lynn, and then played me “The Pill.”
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.