When he was a prose writer-in-residence last year with the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, best-selling biographer Jonathan Eig gave his students some advice: When writing, find the big idea, or the “mighty theme.”
He’s taken his own advice and the proof is in the pudding, or in this case his newest book. Eig chose a mighty theme.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, published last year, is peopled with a mix of radical, risk-taking individuals who took a bold idea — effective contraception controlled by women rather than men — to initiation, invention and introduction despite long odds and determined opposition.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, Eig will present the first of the Women’s Club’s 2015 Contemporary Issues Forum lectures — “Sex and the Revolution” — where he will talk about how sex and women’s rights have advanced the cause of freedom in the U.S. and worldwide.
“This is especially important on Independence Day, when we tend to think about war and revolution,” Eig said. “Sometimes, love and sex can change the world, as we saw with the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Human behavior changes and the world catches up. Birth control made the world more free and expanded equality.”
While the topic of intimate relationships arises in Eig’s three previous books — biographies of the Chicago gangster Al Capone, Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, and New York Yankee Lou Gehrig — he said his readers tend to think of him as a baseball guy.
Although Eig is currently writing about Muhammad Ali, that’s a reasonable deduction. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig was Eig’s literary debut; the first he held in his hands and his proudest achievement.
At his core, Eig is a journalist. Since the early 1980s when he was earning his bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he has covered myriad events, issues and people. For 20 years, Eig wrote for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, followed by The Dallas Morning News, Chicago magazine, where he was also executive editor, and The Wall Street Journal, where he remains a contributing writer.
“I love the experience of branching out and finding a new audience,” he said.
After completing Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, he was between books.
“I felt like I was never going to come up with a book again and it was pure hell,” Eig said.
His wife suggested he write about something that women would be interested in; after all, they buy more books than men do.
Eig was looking into inventions when he recalled a sermon in which a rabbi said that the birth control pill was the most important invention of the 20th century.
Thinking that seemed odd, his curiosity was sparked and he began wondering how it had come about.
In writing a history of the pill, Eig said his biggest challenges were: understanding the science, writing about women’s issues, and doing justice to all four crusaders.
“I had to explain the reproductive process properly or lose my audience,” Eigh said. “I also had to keep the plot going while giving each person their time on stage — they were all middle-aged or elderly before the story even begins — and while developing the architecture of the book.“
Eig is scrupulous about his research. For The Birth of the Pill, he started out reading about two of the four crusaders, Margaret Sanger and Gregory Pincus.
Sanger was the nurse, sex educator and feminist who opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 and popularized the term “birth control.” Eig, who is based in Chicago, traveled to Northampton, Massachusetts, to study the Margaret Sanger Papers collection housed at Smith College.
Pincus was a controversial former Harvard biologist who began studying hormonal biology and steroidal hormones early on and invented the combined oral contraceptive pill. His story had never been told, so Eig tracked down his daughter, Laura.
Fortunately Pincus had saved his papers; Eig found those papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“Scientists are really good at keeping records; better than baseball players,” Eig said. “There are not many large archives online, and I want to feel and smell the documents, and get as close as I can to the person I’m writing about.”
While Pincus was the crusader who lured Eig in, he said that Sanger and Katharine McCormick were the pill’s driving forces. They got it off the ground. McCormick had graduated from MIT in 1904 with a B.S. in biology and was a leading suffragist and philanthropist.
The fourth pill crusader, Harvard-trained obstetrician and gynecologist John Rock, was willing to fight the Catholic church and give young couples advice on sex. Rock became an infertility specialist and in vitro fertilization and sperm-freezing pioneer.
At times Eig fell in love with all four. Picking a favorite would be hard.
“If the birth control pill had been developed at a big pharmaceutical company or at Harvard University, there would not be much of a story,” he said.
When he had finished The Birth of the Pill, Eig told the rabbi how much his sermon had inspired him. The rabbi responded that he’d said the pill was just one of the most important inventions. People should think of themselves as partners with God, the rabbi said, and people have a responsibility to change the world.
According to Eig, that’s what the four women and men who reinvented sex did.
“They took on a job that seemed impossible,” he said. “They changed what marriage and parenting means. We have the ability, not just the responsibility, to think big about how individuals can change the world.”