Foto van een doosje Anovlar.

Photo of a box of Anovlar | Wikimedia Commons

Arts & Sciences
Read aloud

The Pill

Sexual Revolution and Women’s Rights

The invention of reliable contraception, such as the pill, enabled people from the 1960s on to prevent pregnancy effectively. That not only heralded a sexual revolution, but also contributed towards the emancipation of women. The gynaecologist Ferdinand Peeters played an important role in the development of the pill.

Read aloud

Up to the 1960s there were few ways of preventing pregnancy. Couples resorted to periodic abstinencea method of contraception in which sexual intercourse is limited to the woman’s infertile period. or coitus interruptuswithdrawing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation. , two rather unreliable methods. Less common were the condom and the pessarya cap or ring that closes the cervix and excludes sperm. . Moreover, since 1922 advertising contraceptives and providing information on how to use them had been prohibited in Belgium. For many people everything connected with sex was taboo. The 1960s brought big changes. The invention of the pill allowed women to regulate their own fertility in a reliable way.

Dolle Mina.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo034724

The feminist movement Dolle Mina (Mad Mina), seen here in discussion in 1978, was active in the 1970s in Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven, Ostend and Brussels, around key figures such as Roos Proesmans (1943-2002) and Nadine Crappé (1935-1999).

Read aloud

Sexual Revolution and Women’s Rights

Being able to choose whether or not to have children, when and how many, made women more independent and increased their chances in the labour market. The pill was a crucial step in the sexual liberation of women and men. The fact that sex and pregnancy were no longer inextricably linked, changed the way people dealt with sexuality. In the 1960s that ‘sexual revolution’ was a significant and quite sudden social change. It formed part of a broader international evolution in which students, women, the LGBTQ+ community and people of colour questioned the established order and demanded rights. The legendary student revolt of May 1968 in Paris was one of the expressions of this.

In Flanders from the end of the 1960s both the traditional Catholic and Socialist women’s organisations and more radical feminist groups came up with new demands. They fought for equal pay, affordable childcare, more educational opportunities, a stronger presence in politics, changes in legislation on marriage, inheritance and parenthood, and so on.

Step by step from the 1970s on legislation brought change. Particularly new women’s organisations, such as Dolle Mina and the Women’s Consultative Committee (today Furia), put the free distribution of contraceptives and the right to abortion on the political agenda.

Focal points

Nand Peeters.

Family Archives

Doctor Ferdinand Peeters (1918-1998) was silent from the 1970s on about his contribution to the development of the pill. According to his biographer, this was because he feared for his position in a Catholic hospital. He is seen here at a conference in Malta.

Read aloud

Ferdinand Peeters and Catholic Morality

The first hormonal contraceptive pill was developed in the 1950s in the United States of America. However, it had serious side effects. In search of better medication the gynaecologist Ferdinand Peeters from Turnhout began experimenting. His work heralded a breakthrough and in 1961 a German firm launched Peeters’ formula under the brand name Anovlar. In order to circumvent the Belgian ban on the distribution of contraceptives, the product went on the market in Belgium in 1965 as a remedy for ‘menstruation problems’.

In the 1960s many GPs still refused to prescribe the pill. Under the influence of Catholic morality the dominant conviction was that sex within marriage should focus on reproduction. Sex before marriage was totally unacceptable.

Ferdinand Peeters was a socially motivated Catholic doctor. In his practice he saw the results of unwanted pregnancies: miscarriages, stillborn children, death in childbirth and dangerous, clandestine abortions. Peeters even went to Rome to persuade the pope to allow family planning. The church was deaf to his plea and that of other doctors, scientists and theologians and rejected artificial birth control. However, fewer and fewer Catholics were prepared to follow that course. In 1973 the Belgian government abolished the ban on the distribution of contraceptives. Nowadays children and young adults are extensively informed at school about relationships, sexuality, pregnancy prevention and safe sex.

Lucienne Herman-Michielsens.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo023144, Filip Claus

Lucienne Herman-Michielsens in parliament, 1990.



Read aloud

Abortion Comes Out of the Shadows

As recently as the 1960s doctors, quacks and women at home carried out thousands of abortions per year. Scores of women died in the process. The pill brought an improvement, but not enough. For that reason more and more voices were raised in favour of legalising abortion. A turning point in the abortion debate was the arrest of Willy Peers in 1973. This Walloon doctor was charged with having carried out three hundred abortions. The court wanted make an example of him, but that had the opposite effect. With posters, demonstrations, testimonies and much press attention, action groups demanded his release and the legalisation of abortion. The central issue was women’s right to decide for themselves, with the slogan ‘Baas in eigen buik’ (Boss in our own Belly).

In 1977 the Flemish liberal senator Lucienne Herman-Michielsens, with the French-speaking Socialist Roger Lallemand, tabled a bill to bring abortion out of the shadows. She referred to women’s right to decide for themselves, but also hammered on the question of prevention. She defended abortion as an ‘emergency solution’, with a view to public health. Parliament rejected the bill.

In the 1980s a number of major abortion trials of medical staff were given much media attention. In 1990 parliament passed a bill which made abortion possible under strict conditions. The Christian-Democrats and some Catholic groups opposed this and invoked the right to life. King Boudewijn refused to sign the bill; it was finally signed by the Council of Ministers. In 2018 abortion was scrapped from the criminal code.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, Filip Claus

The Women’s Discussion Committee (today Furia) organises an annual Women’s Day on 11 November. During the tenth Women’s Day the economic crisis and the right to work were in the centre of attention.

Lily Boeykens.
Sint-Joost-ten-Node, Archief- en Onderzoekscentrum voor Vrouwengeschiedenis, Archief Lily Boeykens

The lawyer from Dendermonde Lily Boeykens (1930-2005) was a key figure in the struggle for emancipation after ‘May 68’. She was one of the organisers of the first Women’s Day, at which the guests included Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer. From 1974 she chaired the Dutch-Speaking Women’s Council. Internationally too she played an important role for decades.

Baas in eigen buik.
The Hague, National Archives, Fotocollectie Anefo, Bert Verhoeff

The arrest of Doctor Willy Peers led to a wave of protest.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. Archief KAV. 527

The KAV, the organisation of Christian working-class women, demands equal rights.

Paula Marckx.
Brussels, VRT

In 1987 legitimate and illegitimate children – children whose parents were not married – were accorded equal rights in Belgium. The consciously unmarried mother Paula Marckx (1925-2020), from the Seefhoek in Antwerp, had already gone to the European Commission on Human Rights in 1974 to demand recognition for her ‘illegitimate’ or ‘extramarital child,’ The European Court for Human Rights ruled in her favour in 1979. Belgium must put an end to the discrimination.

From the pastoral letter on marriage from Emiel Jozef De Smedt, bishop of Bruges, 8 December 1953

For the Catholic church marriage was focused on reproduction. It regarded large families as ideal and rejected artificial contraception.

Discover more on this topic


Bron: VRT archief, Screensavers Films – 4 apr 2014


Coene Gily & Bollen Sophie
Nog altijd baas in eigen buik? Een kritische doorlichting van de Belgische abortuswetgeving en – praktijk

VUBPress, 2013. 

De Donder Vic
Zou men armoe lijden?: een eeuw kroostrijke gezinnen in Vlaanderen

WPG, 1990. 

De Keyzer Diane
De engeltjesmakers: abortus toen het nog niet mocht

Van Halewyck, 2009. 

De Smith Katrijn
Hoe dol was Dolle mina? Een geschiedenis van de Dolle Mina’s in Vlaanderen

Gent, 2006. 

Driessen Gertie
Abortus, het taboe nog niet voorbij?

Kramat, 2016. 

Trommelmans Wim
Vlaanderen vrijt! 50 jaar seks in Vlaanderen

Steam, 2006. 

Van Den Broeck Karl
De echte vader van de pil: het verhaal van de man die de vrouw bevrijdde

De Bezige Bij, 2014. 

Van Eyck Paul

Heibrand, 2008. (Levensverhaal van Turnhoutse vroedvrouw Clara Dresselaers). 


Boon Louis Paul
De liefde van Annie Mols/Het nieuwe onkruid/Als het onkruid bloeit

De Arbeiderspers, 2005. 

Claus Hugo
De Metsiers

Manteau, 1950. 

Geeraerts Jef

Manteau, 1969. (Kortverhaal in de bundel Indian Summer). 

Vandewijer Ina
Little black spiders

Davidsfonds, 2012. (13+)