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Prosperity and the Pill


Hailed as a medical miracle, the birth-control pill has been lauded and vilified for its virtually fail-safe powers as an oral contraceptive. Few would dispute its influence on modern societies, or its position as the catalyst for the so-called sexual revolution. Now, in a recent paper, "The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women's Career and Marriage Decisions," Lee professor of economics Claudia Goldin and professor of economics Lawrence F. Katz describe the pill's long-term social and career consequences for young, single women who came of age in the years after its invention.

"We can see that something changed in the late 1960s and early '70s, when it came to young women's career aspirations," says Goldin. "The question is, did the pill have any effect on this change?"

Although rapidly disseminated among married women once it came on the market in 1960, the pill at first was almost inaccessible to single females, due to the prevailing legal and social environment. But growing advocacy for teenagers' rights, due in part to the Vietnam War, cleared the way for passage in 1971 of the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. "States began to give other rights to teenagers as well, and some of these rights concerned medical issues," states Goldin. Freed from the need for parental approval to dispense prescriptions to their teenage patients, university health clinics made the pill available to students.

Simultaneously, the number of women beginning professional careers jumped dramatically. The proportion of female lawyers and judges, for example, rose from 5.1 percent in 1970 to 13.6 percent in 1980 and 28.6 percent in 1998. Among physicians, during the same period, the female cohort grew from 9.1 percent to 14.1 and then 26.6 percent. "We looked at careers that require a long-term investment--any profession that entails planning ahead, in which getting knocked off the track by pregnancy might have an impact," says Katz. Pre-pill, given the relative ineffectiveness of other types of birth control, the economic "cost" of sex (i.e., pregnancy) was quite high. "It was a stark choice," Katz comments. "You could be celibate, get your career started, and potentially face a very thin marriage market once you were done. Or, you could have fun, get married earlier, and not necessarily have a career."

©Don Farrall/PhotoDisc/Picture Quest
The pill's direct effect was to lower the economic cost of sex, but the researchers suggest an indirect, or "social multiplier," effect as well. "Even if you were a woman who wasn't investing in a career, the fact that other people were delaying marriage meant that you might be more likely to do the same," Katz says. The proportion of female college graduates marrying before age 22 dropped steeply--from 38 percent for those born in 1950, to 21 percent for those born in 1957. Suddenly, wearing "a ring by spring" didn't have the same social cachet, and postponing the wedding march for at least a few years didn't mean all the "good guys" would be taken. "You might think of it as the decline of the trophy wife," says Goldin, "as women with careers who might not be as intrinsically good-looking became more highly valued than--or at least as equally valued as--women for whom appearance was a primary asset."

"Potential losers in this equation, in addition to trophy wives, are women with poor career prospects," adds Katz. The clear winners are women with careers and, of course, the men they marry. With a second income, later marriage, and fewer children, Katz explains, "Guys have more money, more sex, and less responsibility."

Collecting data on the diffusion of the pill to single women required more detective work than anticipated. "Young, unmarried women weren't supposed to be having sex," says Goldin. "Therefore, social scientists didn't ask them about contraception." But resourceful marshaling of data proved helpful. The 1982 National Survey of Family Growth, along with other sources, provided statistics on women's average age at first marriage. The 1987 National Health Interview Survey included a supplement that examined the link between oral contraceptives and cancer and so provided a way to trace back the age of first pill use among women.

"I didn't know what we were going to find when we embarked on this project," Goldin says. "It became a little window through which we could observe an enormous amount of U.S. social history in the post-World War II period." Goldin, who entered graduate school in the late 1960s, found some personal rewards as well. "Social-science research is sometimes more than understanding someone else's past," she says. "It's also understanding your own."?

~Julia Hanna


Goldin/Katz paper website:

Claudia Goldin e-mail address:

Lawrence Katz e-mail address: