Ortho-Novum Pill Pack • 1963

by Robin Marantz Henig

The sexual revolution didn’t start the moment the pill (pictured in above image) was approved for contraception, in 1960. The (usually male) doctors who prescribed it in those first years often had a policy of restricting its use to women who were married, and who already had children. No free-love proponents or feminist firebrands allowed.

Physicians at university health clinics had tough decisions to make in those early days, according to a 1965 New York Times Magazine article: Should they prescribe the pill to single girls? Perhaps, if the patient brought a note from her pastor certifying that she was about to be married. But for students with no matrimonial plans? “If we did,” one clinic staffer told the author of the Times article, Cornell professor Andrew Hacker, “word would get around the dorms like wildfire and we’d be writing out prescriptions several times a day.”

Hacker posed a similar question to his freshman class. “It is hardly necessary to say that a good majority of the boys thought this was a splendid idea,” he wrote. “But what surprised me was that most of the girls also agreed.”

Five years after that report, I became a Cornell freshman myself. By then the world had shifted. The Supreme Court had already ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that married couples had the right to any contraception. Another case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, was wending its way to the Supreme Court, its litigants hoping the justices would expand that right to non-married women. (In 1972, they did.) Meanwhile, I had my first serious boyfriend, and we soon found ourselves in the waiting room of a Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Ithaca. No one asked whether I was married. The physician examined me, wrote me a prescription—and soon I had my very own pill pack, complete with a flowered plastic sleeve that could slip discreetly into a purse. I stored my pills in the grungy bathroom my boyfriend shared with five roommates. The only time I even thought about whether my pill pack was “discreet” was when I went home for vacation and worried that my mother would figure out I was having sex.

The pill wasn’t a bed of roses, despite the flowers on that plastic sleeve. In those days it had very high levels of artificial progestin and estrogen, hormones that could lead to blood clots, embolisms and strokes, especially for women who smoked or who were over 35. And I suffered my share of side effects. It wasn’t until I went off the pill to get pregnant that I realized I wasn’t necessarily suffering from depression just because I got weepy for three weeks every month.

It was thanks to women’s health advocates that the risks and side effects of the early pill were finally recognized. Today’s formulations have about one-tenth the progestin and one-third the estrogen that their progenitors did. And each prescription comes with a clear statement of potential risks—the now-familiar patient package insert that accompanies all medication, a safeguard that was originally a response to consumer pressure regarding the pill.

By the time I got married, in 1973—to that first serious boyfriend—36 percent of American women were on the pill. Hacker’s 1965 article proved to be prescient: “Just as we have adjusted our lives to the television set and the automobile, so—in 20 years’ time—we shall take the pill for granted, and wonder how we ever lived without it.”

Shirley Chisholm’s campaign buttons • 1972

Chisholm Campaign Buttons
When Americans first voted in 1788, only property holders had the right to cast ballots. The rationale was that only white male landowners could be truly independent. But by 1968, when Shirley Chisholm first ran for Congress, many Americans were looking for an alternative to “the Man”—the white male leader who drew much of his support from special interest groups. Although Chisholm was initially shunned by the Democratic establishment, she became the first black woman elected to Congress, where she represented New York’s 12th District for seven terms. She ran for president in 1972 under the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed”—a compelling statement of independence from a woman whose ancestors had existed outside American power structures for hundreds of years.

Grace Hopper’s nanosecond wire • 1985

Grace Hopper's nanosecond wire
When Grace Hopper enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943, she had to get an exemption: The 34-year-old math professor was above the Navy’s maximum age and under its minimum weight. She became a pioneering programmer, joining the team that developed the Mark I computer. After the war, she recommended that computer programs be written in English, a radical change that opened the field to non-mathematicians for the first time. As Hopper reasoned, “It’s much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols.” Hopper had a knack for explaining computing in ways laypeople could understand. During the 1980s, she became known for handing out foot-long pieces of wire to show how far electricity could travel in one-billionth of a second.

Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” record • 1953

Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” record
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was 25 years old when the 19-year-old songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote her first and only hit, tailoring it to her voice. “We wanted her to growl it,” Stoller later told Rolling Stone. Growl she did—and the record sold more than half a million copies, helping usher in the dawn of rock ’n’ roll. A few years later, 21-year-old Elvis Presley recorded his own version, which Leiber initially found annoying. “I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about,” he wrote. “The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo.” But Presley’s recording went on to sell ten million copies. To this day, few Elvis fans realize that “Hound Dog” started life as an anthem of black female power.

Celia Cruz’s shoes • 1997

Celia Cruz's shoes
Born in a Havana barrio, Celia Cruz was barred from returning to Cuba while she was on tour in Mexico in 1960. She moved to New York, where she performed with musicians from all over Latin America and became a pioneer in the salsa scene, earning three Grammy Awards and the National Medal of Arts. She was known for her astonishing vocal range and improvised lyrics, and for a style that was as groundbreaking as her voice. Her wardrobe featured extravagant ruffles, sequins and physics-defying high heels. Some of her shoes had no heel support at all, requiring her to balance only on the balls of her feet. “Celia’s shoes are much more than footwear,” wrote the Latin American scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner. “For the fans, many of whom were women, black, Latinos, and queers, they offered both the hope of reaching a similar stature and of upsetting the hierarchies that kept them down.”

Phyllis Diller’s gag file • 1960s

by Margaret Cho

Phyllis Diller's gag file
After Diller donated this file of 52,569 jokes, the Smithsonian asked for volunteers to type them for digital access. The project was done in three weeks.

I met Phyllis Diller in the early 1990s when we were filming a Bob Hope special together. She was in her 70s then and didn’t seem old when the cameras were off. But as soon as we started rolling, she really exaggerated her age. Bob himself was seriously old at that point—when you were talking to him, he would forget what he was saying mid-sentence. You could be standing right in front of him and he’d barely even know you were there. He was basically a ghost of who he’d been. It was almost as if Phyllis was trying to play older to make him feel better. But she was always very on top of it, always completely there.

No one was doing what Phyllis did before she came along. When you think of someone like Lucille Ball—she played the game of the housewife. She was bubbly and goofy, and she really did obey Ricky, even if she rebelled a little bit. She never tried to degrade him or outshine him.

Phyllis pushed back against the idea of women as comforting mother figures. She had five children by the time she made her first television appearance, on “You Bet Your Life” in 1958. Groucho Marx asked her, “Phyllis, what do you do to break up the monotony of housekeeping and taking care of five small gorillas?”

“Well,” she said, “I’m really not a housewife anymore. I beat the rap.” That was an incredibly shocking thing for her to say in 1958!

There was so much edge to her comedy. She wore those over-the-top outfits and crazy hair, ridiculing the image of the perfectly groomed housewife. She made brutal jokes about her husband, “Fang.” She said, “This idiot that I portray on stage has to have a husband, and he’s got to be even more idiotic than I.” Her whole persona was alarmingly crass. She showed that women could have a lot more agency and strength than people believed, that they could act out of rage as opposed to just being goofy. She made herself someone to be feared, and she really enjoyed wielding that battle-ax.

And yet she was embraced by the television culture, which was usually incredibly restrictive. When you think about Steve Allen or Sid Caesar, they were part of the ultimate boys’ club, but they let her sit at the table with them. She figured out early on how to disarm her audiences. As a woman in comedy, you can’t be too pretty. Even when I started out in the ’90s, we were all trying to be tomboys like Janeane Garofalo. Now that I’m 50, it’s a lot easier. I think a younger comedian like Amy Schumer has a hard time being taken seriously because she’s pretty and young. There’s a lot of pressure to downplay your power.

In Phyllis’ case, she didn’t downplay her power. She exaggerated it with her crazy clothes and her eccentric mannerisms. That worked just as well.

When it comes to being subversive, female comedians have an advantage in a way because it’s such a radical idea for a woman to have a voice at all. That’s still true. Phyllis was one of the first comedians who figured out how to use her voice to question authority and challenge the way things were. She knew that when you’re entertaining people, you get across ideas in a way they’re not expecting. They think you’re giving them a magnificent gift, and then they get a surprise. They don’t realize it’s a Trojan horse, filled with artillery. She got so much feminism into a character that seemed like a hilarious clown.

Being with Phyllis in person was always a surreal experience. She would yell things like, “Never, ever, ever touch me!” And I never did, so that was good! But I was always enthralled by her: I have a sculpture in my house that’s made partly out of empty pill bottles from Phyllis Diller. None of us women in comedy could be doing what we’re doing if it weren’t for her. And I don’t think anyone today could even begin to approach what she did starting in the 1950s. She was so electric and revolutionary.

Nannie Helen Burroughs’ cash register • 1904

Nannie Helen Burroughs' cash register
When Nannie Helen Burroughs opened a school for young African-American women in 1909, its motto was “We specialize in the wholly impossible.” Burroughs initially managed to fund the school entirely from within the black community, largely through small donations from other women. The school was unlike any other at the time: It offered vocational training alongside high school and junior college academics. Graduates entered the work force with the skills to become domestic workers or bookkeepers, but they also had a financial savvy and independence their mothers had never had. Burroughs also insisted that students learn African-American history. As she declared in a 1934 speech: “I want you to take the struggles, the hardships, and the handicaps of this civilization and turn them into stepping-stones.”

Helen Keller's watch • 1892

Helen Keller's watch
This uncommon Swiss-made “touch watch” was a gift to Helen Keller from John Hitz, the superintendent of the Volta Bureau, Alexander Graham Bell’s Washington, D.C. center for the deaf. Though it was originally made for diplomats like Hitz to discreetly tell time in the dark, the watch’s studded face allowed Keller, blind and deaf since the age of 19 months, to discern the hour and approximate minute by feeling the position of the watch’s hands. Nearly lost on a 1952 trip to New York City, the watch was one of Keller’s prized possessions.

Chris Evert's tennis racket • c. 1978

Chris Evert tennis racket
Though the strings are broken, this Wilson tennis racket is far from worthless. It once belonged to “America’s tennis sweetheart” Chris Evert, one of the top female tennis players in the 1970s and ’80s. Known for her powerful two-handed backhand and stoic demeanor, Evert was ranked No.1 in the world for seven years and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1995.

Pink protest hat, Women’s March • 2017

Pink protest hat
After the 2016 presidential election, two Los Angeles friends—galvanized by Donald Trump’s comments about women—asked the owner of their local knitting shop to design a “pussyhat.” They posted the pattern online so women could wear the hats to post-inauguration protest marches. “You could see women wearing the hat in all different shades of peach, magenta, bubble-gum pink,” says Smithsonian curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy. “They made it their own.”

Nancy Pelosi’s gavel • 2007

Nancy Pelosi's gavel
California representative Nancy Pelosi was first elected speaker of the House in 2007 when there were 72 women serving there. On January 3, 2019, she once again accepted that position, jubilantly waving her gavel as Democratic lawmakers cheered. The House now has 102 female members, representing a range of ages, races, religions and sexual orientations. “I’m particularly proud to be the woman speaker of this Congress,” Pelosi said in her acceptance speech, noting that 2019 also marks the 100th year of women having the right to vote.

Eleanor Roosevelt's reading glasses • c. 1933

Eleanor Roosevelt's reading glasses
This pair of white-gold reading glasses once belonged to first lady, diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. The glasses are pince-nez style, named after the French words pincer, meaning “to pinch,” and nez, or “nose,” and cling to the bridge of the nose without support from temples. Pince-nez glasses were popular in the 19th century. Eleanor was not the only Roosevelt to own a pair of these spectacles: Her husband, Franklin, and uncle, Theodore, both famously wore a similar style.

Gertrude Ederle’s goggles • 1926

by Sally Jenkins

Gertrude Ederle’s goggles

At 7:09 a.m. on August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle set off across the English Channel wearing a pair of glass aviator goggles sealed with wax. “England or drown is my motto,” she said before wading into the sea in Cape Gris-Nez, France. Tossed up and down by six-foot waves, she churned through the water as if she had no choice but to keep moving or die.

Ederle was a 20-year-old butcher’s daughter from New York who looked forward to owning a red roadster, a gift her father had promised her if she swam across the channel successfully. In 1926 only five men had accomplished that feat. No woman had done so. “In her day it was the mythic swim of the world,” says the renowned open-water swimmer Diana Nyad.

Ederle was a well-muscled Olympic medalist and world record-setter. It was reported that her inhale was so deep that she had a chest expansion of eight inches. (In contrast, slugger Babe Ruth and prizefighter Jack Dempsey each had a chest expansion of less than four inches.) She had swagger aplenty, too. “Bring on your old channel,” she’d said before her first crossing attempt, in 1925. That time, one of her coaches had pulled her from the channel before she reached England, either because he feared she would faint or because he couldn’t bear to see a teenage girl do what he couldn’t. As Ederle said afterward, “I never fainted in my life.”

Now, a year later, the 61-degree water was once again throwing her from peak to trough as the North Sea collided with the surging Atlantic in the Strait of Dover. Ederle plied the chop with her American crawl—the powerful new overhand that had helped her win a gold and two bronze medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

She followed a Z-shaped route, designed to cut across currents and catch favorable tides. Her suit was a thin silk affair; she’d cut away its skirt to streamline it. Her skin was covered with nothing more than grease to ward off hypothermia. An assistant in an escort boat fed her chicken broth out of a bottle lowered on a fishing pole. The crew played “Yes, We Have No Bananas” on a Victrola to pace her.

Through her crude goggles, Ederle could glimpse a variety of hazards: Portuguese men-of-war, sunken wrecks and sharks, whose carcasses were regularly hung on the wall at the post office in Boulogne. The wax with which she’d sealed the goggles came from her dinner candles. “A channel swimmer today puts on a weightless pair of goggles that sit with perfect suction,” Nyad says. “She’s wearing motorcycle goggles, like the ones Snoopy wore when he was flying his biplane.”

About halfway across the channel, the weather turned stormy, with 25-mile-per-hour winds and swells that made the boat passengers lean over the gunwales and throw up. “Gertie will have to come out. It’s not humanly possible to go on in a sea like this,” her coach, Bill Burgess, said. Someone cried, “Come out! Come out!” Ederle bobbed back up and shouted, “What for?”

At 9:40 p.m. she staggered onto British shores to a cacophony of boat horns. Several women dashed into the water, getting their hems wet, to kiss her. Her father wrapped her in a robe. “Pop, do I get that red roadster?” she asked. Decades later she admitted to Nyad, “I was frozen to the bone. I’m not sure I could have stood another hour.”

With her time of 14 hours and 31 minutes, Ederle (who died in 2003) not only became the first woman to cross the 21-mile channel but obliterated the men’s record by two hours. The New York Herald Tribune sports editor W. O. McGeehan wrote, “Let the men athletes be good sportsmen and admit that the test of the channel swim is the sternest of all tests of human endurance and strength. Gertrude Ederle has made the achievements of the five men swimmers look puny.”

It was, and remains, a monumental accomplishment. As Ederle’s biographer Glenn Stout noted in 2009, “Far fewer human beings have swum the English Channel than have climbed Mount Everest.” Her record was not broken until 1950—by Florence Chadwick, another American woman, who swam the channel in 13 hours and 20 minutes. And yet, as Nyad says, “We still after all these years look at women, like, ‘Gosh maybe it’ll hurt ’em.’”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.