The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions

The year 1970 witnessed an increasing number of graduate women entering professional courses and their enhanced age levels at first marriage. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz in their study paper entitled “The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions” under the auspices of Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research examine the relationship between the above said developments and the popular consumption of birth control pills by young, unmarried college graduate women.

In 1937, it was found that progesterone prevented ovulation and ultimately leading to the FDA approval of birth control medicine in 1960 as an oral contraceptive for women backed by generous funding of the related projects by the heiress Katherine Dexter McCormick in 1954. Though the pill containing ‘norethynodrel’ was approved by the FDA in 1960 itself, it began to be consumed more only after majority age was reduced in many states in late 1960s. The authors seek to prove the power of the pill in lowering the costs of women’s prolonged professional education and raising their marital age levels significantly.

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As a result, percentage of women in law students increased from 10 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 1980. 50 % of women born in 1950 married at the age of 23, while 30% of them born in 1957 married at the same age. Women did not have to observe abstinence any longer nor undergo early pregnancy due to unprotected sex. Besides, the contraceptive pill had the effect of reducing the marriage market cost. The authors in their empirical studies based their findings on analysis of age at first marriage and career changes due to legal change of majority age for women in many states.

They also explore why distribution of the pill to single women did not immediately increase after the legal changes in their favor. The methology adopted for the study is the empirical analysis by using cross section data of diffusion of the pills in 1971 among young and unmarried women. They have given their findings under the broad headings of ‘The Pill and Single Women’,’ Frameworks to Understand the Effect of the Pill on Marriage and Career’, ‘Evidence for the Power of the Pill’, ‘The case for the Power of Pill’, and ‘Alternative Explanations’.

The pill first became popular among married women in the U. S. and by 1965, 41% of women below 30 years were on this contraception pill. Just when its use peaked among the married women in 1967, single women started using it. The delay in its use by the latter group was because of mandatory parental consent for use by single women of less than majority age. It was only in 1972, following 26th amendment (1971), age of majority was reduced to 18 years. The study cites in Table 1 events and land mark decisions from 1875 to 1974.

Starting from 1875 which saw the promulgation of Comstock law prohibiting obscene literature and articles of immoral use, several milestones have been crossed before liberalization, the first one being the U. S. Circuit Court’s decision in 1936 allowing dissemination of information on birth control and devices used. There were of course few impediments to the drug’s propagation such as the reports of thromboembolism from London following the use of the pill which was however ruled out by the FDA in 1963 after two years. In 1965, the U. S.

Supreme Court nullified a Connecticut Law which banned the use of contraceptives on the grounds of violation of married couples’ privacy. 1968 saw Papal’s command to Catholics not to use the pill. Probably the most important event was the Yale University’s opening of family planning clinics for access to all students in the year 1974 which witnessed overturning of law prohibiting use of contraceptives by unmarried individuals by Wisconsin Federal District Court. State laws could not prevent single women from using contraceptive pills as they continued getting pills prescribed by the doctors under the pretext of having been engaged.

Another ploy to get the pills was complaints of irregular periods which this pill is supposed to regulate. As of 1969, majority age for females was 21 for all States except nine. And 18 years of majority age was in vogue in six of the States. The ages were lowered between 1969 and 1974. The lowering of age was in fact due to Vietnam War and the contraception use was incidental. The 1967 social security amendment also was instrumental in poor women accessing family planning clinics.

The authors have established that the pill has greatly influenced the professional career development of women. The direct effect of the pill for women was reduction in cost of marriage delay. It has made the marriage delay and resultant career investment cheaper. Besides women have more attractive marriage partner with their earning capacity. The abortion reform was a complementary to pill effect for the empowerment of women’s’ career development. In sum, the authors have projected the advent of Oral Contraceptive Pill as an undeniable power of women’s empowerment in many respects.