World War II brought many changes to the world, America was no exception. However, most who lived through the war will tell you that the biggest change was the rate at which American women entered the workforce. Rosie the Riveter was highly successful at inspiring women to take up a skill and keep the American machine chugging along, supporting their husbands, sons and brothers who were fighting in the European and Pacific theaters. In 1940 women made up 26% of the workforce, by 1945 it had risen to 36%. In postwar interviews conducted by the Women’s Division of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75% of women employed during the war intended to stay employed after the return to peacetime (American Social History Project, 2015). While the war did bring about a new acceptance of women working outside the home, there were other factors at play albeit much later in this story.
We’ve likely all heard of the population boom that came after World War II, the Baby Boomers we call them. The Baby Boomers were born between 1943 and 1960. They are defined by having no memory of World War II itself, but can remember the American post war high and economic upturn that followed. Most Boomers were teenagers or young adults during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War, in all its controversy, brought up a generation who were more free-thinking and outspoken (History Channel, 2017). We first begin to see a change in the marriage and career habits of women born around 1950. In 1970 women made up 10% of first year law students. About 50% of female college graduates born in 1950 were married by age 23, while less than 30% of the cohort born in 1957 were(Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 730-31).Is it the post-war high and Vietnam Era hippies of the 1960s that caused this change in the plans of young American women? My research indicates that the direct catalyst for this marked change in the education and career pathways of young women is known colloquially as, “the pill.”
One of the first steps in the road to effective birth control starts in 1937, when researchers discovered the role of the female hormone progesterone as an inhibitor of ovulation. Years later in 1950 Margaret Sanger, a women’s issues advocate, convinced Katherine Dexter McCormick, a philanthropist and heiress, to fund research on “the pill.” Just one year later, researchers were successful in synthesizing norethindrone, an orally active progesterone hormone. Then in 1952 another scientist manufactures norethynodrel, a chemically comparable competitor. The next year McCormick promises to fund the birth control project, research and development, through to fruition. At this point, things are happening rapidly in the world of medical advances. In 1954 the first official tests are being run, using the synthetic hormones to stop ovulation. In 1955 patents are awarded on norethynodrel, and another on norethindrone in 1956. Later the same year large scale clinical trials are being done with norethynodrel. In 1957 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves norethindrone, as brand name Norlutin, and norethynodrel, as brand name Enovid as treatments for hormonal and medical disorders. Then in 1960, Enovid is approved as an oral contraceptive (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 733). The diffusion of the pill was rapid, so rapid that by 1965, 40% of married women were using it (Goldin & Katz, 2000, p. 463). Nonetheless, it was limited to just that, married women.
What we now know as the 26thAmendment had been on the minds of American citizens and politicians for quite some time, especially since President Roosevelt lowered the age for military draft to 18. For much of America’s involvement during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, men (and women) were being conscripted into the service to fight for the country, but not allowed to vote in elections. Amidst swelling support on the issue as a Constitutional Amendment, Congress passed the bill, the States promptly ratified it and President Nixon signed it into law, all within four months. The underlying point of this history lesson is that the 26thAmendment effectively set precedence for “mature minor” laws, allowing young, unmarried women to make decisions for themselves (History Channel, 2017). By 1971 thirteen states had mature minor laws on the books that allowed females under the age of 18 to obtain contraception, without parental consent (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 740-41).
Now that we know the history and political factors that propelled oral contraception into easy accessibility, why did the pill cause such a social phenomenon? Based on the research conducted, I can conclude that oral contraception gave women the insurance they needed to pursue long term education and professional careers. And while through the 1960s many single women did not have outright access, small numbers of them were able to attain contraception through other means. Scrimshaw (1981) said that many of her peers made the anxious trip to Planned Parenthood in New York City in the mid 1960s, wearing a dime store engagement ring. Physicians would often prescribe contraception when a woman was getting married soon, as it was not immediately effective, thus pretending to be engaged was a method some used to attain the pill. Additionally, since the pill was often used for the regulation of menses single women would convince the doctor of an irregular cycle, and get the prescription necessary. Even though lying about an engagement or a medical condition was quite demeaning, it attests to the lengths at which young women were willing to go to ensure their own visions of their future.
According to Scrimshaw (1981) the pill gave women the certainty to, “Marry, plan graduate school and careers without having to worry about unplanned pregnancy. For poor and working-class women, the pill affords the only certain relief from constant childbearing.” The data shows this certainty Scrimshaw speaks of. Beginning in 1970, we begin to see a large shift in the ratio of women to men in professional degree programs such as, medical, dental, law and business. Throughout the 1960s women made of just 10% of students in medical programs, 4% in law, 3% in business and 1% in dentistry. Fast forward to 1980 and women were 42% of the student in medical programs, 57% in law, 39% in business and 24% in dentistry (Goldin & Katz 2000, p. 462). Women began to close the gap in these professional programs, and with that we also began to see an overall trend in the rising age of first marriage. Of the cohort of female students born in 1950, 38% were married before age 22. The cohort born in 1957, only 21% were married by 22. We see an even sharper decline in those married by age 26, between the 1950 and 1957 birth years (Goldin & Katz, 2000, p. 462). Even more parallels develop when we consider young women’s expectations for number of children. A survey of American Catholic high school girls found that in 1963, 80% wanted three or more children, and 44% wanted more than four. The same survey done just 10 years later resulted in only 29% wanting three or more children, and 10% said they did not want children at all (Goldin & Katz, 2000, p. 462). I think these are rather statistically significant figures, and the timing of these shifts in the attitudes towards career mindedness, marriage timing and fertility expectations cannot be solely coincidental. The approval of oral contraception, its use by women and widespread dissemination into the normalcy of womanhood is indicative that many women did desire to be more than mother and homemaker.
Without reliable contraception available young women who wanted to embark on a lengthy academic tear and go on to prestigious careers in their field, would have a penalty to pay. Either they had to remain celibate or cope with relative uncertainty of a pregnancy. While abortion was still illegal, the pill gave many women something else: complete control of their reproductive system. Many of the other birth control methods at the time required both partners to be willing and complaint, while oral contraception did not. The pill directly and immediately lowered the opportunity cost, women could have it all: a relationship, an education, a career and maybe, when the time was right, a family. Indirectly, the pill had other effects. By allowing women to delay marriage a few years, gain an education and maybe a career, research showed there was a “thickening” of the marriage market (Goldin & Katz, 2002). By definition this more saturated market led to better matches of couples and increased relationship satisfaction. Women who were educated and had career capability were more attractive to suitors. Interestingly enough, oral contraception was changing the way men looked for a wife. Suddenly a woman who was a fabulous cook and had honed maternal instincts was not the only pinnacle of a spouse, but now she was also educated and held the ability to maintain her own career.
High-powered career women were not the only ones who benefited greatly from the pill. As stated earlier, Scrimshaw (1981) also noted the profound effect the poor and working class felt. For decades motherhood was seen as involuntary and inevitable, every intimate encounter brought dread for women as they recalled the months of sickness and aches, experiencing yet another pregnancy and another child to care for. It allowed the families who just barely got by every month to not fear how another child would affect their budget, and to plan for another child when they were financially able. This move away from the thinking that intercourse was only an activity for reproduction led to a real change in how couples viewed sex itself. Scrimshaw (1981) hilariously writes that it’s no happenstance that books at the turn of the 20thcentury were entitled The Dangers of Spooning while those in the 1980s tout The Joys of Sex.
With all these changes and benefits to women, don’t be fooled; the pill was not perfect, it came under fire many times and continues to do so today. For decades legislation known as the Comstock Law forbade distribution of obscene literature and articles of immoral use, including education on birth control methods. It was not until 1936 that the law was modified to declassify birth control educational information as lewd. In 1961, just one year after oral contraception approved by the FDA reports in Britain begin to surface about complications with thromboembolisms (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 733).The Committee on Obstetrics and Gynecology to the FDA issued reports on the risks associated, as did the British equivalent. However, while the physicians and researchers talked amongst themselves, very little information was being relayed back to the women who were using the pill. Naturally, when Dr. Barbara Seaman’s book The Doctor’s Case Against the Pillcame off the presses, it caused uproar. Granted the book was essentially a compilation of case histories of women who had suffered serious complications, even death, from the pill. But it was the overall antagonistic and destructive tone that made many women have second thoughts, as well as causing a rift in the medical community (Scrimshaw, 1981, p. 256).The FDA suggests that there was no direct links between the pill and complications like thromboembolism, and in 1970 the FDA ruled that all birth control must come with a pamphlet informing the patient of the associated risks (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 733).
One of the societal arguments against contraception was that it would disrupt the institution of marriage and monogamous relationships. Scrimshaw (1981) implores us to remember that American Puritanism was still alive, well into the 1960s. College presidents spoke of the evils that easily accessible contraception would allow college students across the country to be susceptible to, like premarital sex. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision in Griswold v. Connecticutthat a married couple could not use contraception, as it violated their right to privacy.Again in 1972 the Supreme Court overturned the Massachusetts laws that prohibited sale of contraception to unmarried persons. (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 733)
Were the naysayers of contraception worried that women marrying later would have ill effects on the population? While this seems unlikely, it is something to consider. We know that the average age of marriage and first child birth rose quite quickly after 1970. Couples that marry later are likely to have fewer children (Cherlin, 1980). While maybe the worry of those American Puritanists was that America would face population decline in the wake of more and more women marrying late, having fewer kids by means of contraception, or never marrying at all, it’s certainly not the case. Kotkin and Ozuna (2012) maintained that with the constant income of new Americans through immigration, our population growth rate is holding steady.
However, the effect that singlehood has a on the careers of women has been heavily studied. As more and more women pursue professional degrees they have added reasons to delay marriage and use contraception. According to Houseknect, Vaughan and Statham in 1979, 15% of women between 35 and 54 with five or more years of graduate education had never been married. Only 5% of women in the same age range among all edcuation levels have also never married. The same research has also linked higher education, intelligence and occupation with having never been married. On the contrary, men in the same age group with five or more years of graduate education expereince the same rate of never having married as their counterparts in all levels of education. It’s obvious to see that the trends in the 1970s that allowed women to delay marriage have held over to more modern times. Women are consistentlydelaying marriage longer, which may mean that more women remain single throughout their lives. In additon to those never marrieds, women with five or more years of education have the second highest rate of divorce. They are second only to women on the other end of the spectrum, women who have not yet graduated high school. (Houseknect, Vaughan, & Statham, 1987, p. 353-54) Why are these highly succesful women delaying marriage and children, or even forgoing them altogether? The only answer is that these yearn for a different path in life. Modern women have realized how fortunate they are, to live in a time with dependable contraception. In today’s world a marriage doesn’t mean the inescapable years of childbearing. Futhermore, as more women pursued professional degrees and normalized a esteemed career, it has become something to aspire to for many women. Remember, its likely that as men changed the woman they looked for in a spouse, women changed the type of woman they looked up to. Girls in 1968 who had hoped to follow in the footsteps of their mother saw their dreams change before their very eyes. The Civil Rights movement brought a resurgence of feminism with it (Goldin & Katz, 2000). Soon those girls were looking up to influential black congresswomen like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, and later the first woman on the Supreme Court bench, Sandra Day O’Connor.
It’s easy to say that oral contraception was a modern medical marvel. Now there’s scores of contraception products, pills, implants, shots and patches that are all akin to the first FDA approved pill, Enovid. While legislation on the reproductive rights of women have rocked back and forth the last few years, it’s easy to see how a tiny pill has changed the way that women view themsleves and their own potential. They now represent a quarter of the high powered professionals in America, an 18% increase from 1960 (Goldin & Katz, 2000, p. 461). If we can attribute that kind of growth to the development of oral contraception then the oppurtunities for women are truly infinite.
American Social History Project. (2015). “Continued Employment after the War?”: The Women’s Bureau Studies Postwar Plans of Women Workers. Retrieved December 7, 2017, from History Matters: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/7027/
Cherlin, A. (1980). Postponing Marriage: The Influence of Young Women’s Work Espectation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 42(2), 355-365.
Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2000). Career and Marriage in the Age of the Pill. The American Economic Review, 90(2), 461-465.
Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2002). The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions. Journal of Political Economy, 110(4), 730-770.
History Channel. (2017). Baby Boomers. Retrieved December 9, 2017, from The History Channel: http://www.history.com/topics/baby-boomers
History Channel. (2017). The 26th Amendment. Retrieved December 8, 2017, from http://www.history.com: http://www.history.com/topics/the-26th-amendment
Houseknect, S. K., Vaughan, S., & Statham, A. (1987). The Impact of Single Hood on the Career Patters of Professional Women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 49(2), 353-366.
Kotkin, J., & Ozuna, E. (2012). America’s Demographic Future. CATO Journal, 32(1), 55-69.
Scrimshaw, S. C. (1981). Women and the Pill: Panacea to Catalyst. Family Planning Perspectives, 13(6), 254-256, 260-262.