Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Shire, Laurel Clark


During the postwar era, US pharmaceutical companies grew their production and distribution of prescription pills, which included barbiturates, minor tranquilizers, and amphetamines for mass consumption. Middle- and upper-class women were the majority users of these pills, finding assistance with the aid of prescribed drugs that helped correct difficulty with sleeping, eased anxiety, provided energy, and reduced the users’ size. This dissertation works to bring drug history and women’s history together to integrate the impact prescription pills had on women’s lives, positive and negative, and how and why consumers sought these drugs and the effects they promised. This project uncovers interactions between women, prescription pills, and feminism from the 1950s through 1970s in both explicit and subtle ways. The Second-Wave Women’s Movement expanded over the years of women’s heightened pill use, and feminism notably addressed these drugs as they were an integral part of millions of women’s lives. For many, pill use was a sign that women were unhappy with traditional roles and needed society to change. Pills aided women in achieving gender expectations, which feminists would critique as problems with a patriarchal society and gender roles. Women noticed the way they encountered problems and wanted to solve them. Pills were a tool society heralded as a suitable fix and physicians easily supplied them, noting that women benefited from this assistance. Based on personal accounts, prescription pills were not just the oppressive tools that media narratives often imply, leaving women lethargic and indifferent to their lives. The rise of women’s pill use reveals that gender roles were unmanageable, both in traditional standards and new forms as expectations shifted. Prescription pills provided aid to deal with what felt like personal issues and frustrations that feminists later pointed out as larger systemic problems, reflecting a breaking point in many women’s acceptance of gender roles and norms. The relationship between pill use and women was complex. Prescription pills helped some fill traditional norms and others to become more progressive. They raised the standards and possibilities in both cases and brought both needed aid and unintentional harm.

Summary for Lay Audience

Following World War II, three categories of prescription pills played a significant role in the lives of middle- and upper-class white women in America. They used barbiturates to aid in sleep, minor tranquilizers to ease anxiety, and amphetamines to help lose weight and boost energy. Despite the cultural imagery that persists, pill users were not just apathetic to their lives, as we encounter in narratives depicting overdoses and the escapism of bored housewives. Nor were they solely the victims of drug companies seeking profits or of male doctors enforcing control, which feminist narratives and critiques on consumerism forwarded in the 1970s. Users willingly participated in their consumption, at times expressing influence in their drug use. They were not passive consumers but played an active role in their purchase and ingestion of drugs. The ideals that women sought prescriptions to assist in reaching often facilitated maintaining the status quo to the benefit of society and women’s ability to secure their acceptance within it. When we seriously consider the role of the users’ agency rather than viewing them within the common cultural narrative of victimhood, we can see the tensions between gender expectations and real women’s lives in the postwar era. Women’s pill consumption signals their difficulties, at times, before feminism of the era explicitly touched upon them. For some, this meant noticing their daily anxieties or mild depression, for others, it highlights the importance of meeting gender expectations for their personal relationships and financial security. Prescription pills shaped possibilities for women, although also pointed to the unnatural demands of womanhood and brought unintended physical side effects. Women’s prescription pill use and critiques of it often reflected societal concerns about gender roles and feminist narratives and indicated a need for change.

Available for download on Wednesday, May 01, 2024