Claudia Goldin and the power of the pill

Claudia Goldin has documented well that the availability of reliable contraception in the late 1960s led to an explosion in female investment in higher education, and in particular, long duration professional educations.

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 state laws on prescriptions of drugs.

Liberalisation of availability for single females was on a state-by-state basis and was staggered over a few years. This allowed Claudia Goldin to study what happened to investment in professional education by young women in each of those states as they reformed their laws on the dispensing of contraception to single females.

As contraception was made lawful for single women on a state-by-state basis in the USA in the late 60s and 1970s, young women started investing in long duration professional educations at an explosive rate. They stayed in high school the longer, more young women went on to college, and more of these college female students majored in long duration professional degrees.

In the 1960s, it was common to get engaged and even marry while at college in the USA. As Claudia Goldin, and her co-author Larry Katz explain:

It was a stark choice, 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.

The availability of the pill allowed  college-age women to have certainty in their career investments and therefore the payoff of investing in professional educations was much greater.

Participation Rates Women

By decoupling sex for marriage, women could afford to defer marriage and shop around looking for better partners. Postponing marriage for at least a few years didn’t mean all the “good guys” would be taken. In addition, with higher career incomes for female college graduates, as Goldin explained:

You might think of it as the decline of the trophy wife, 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.

But as Goldin’s co-author Larry Katz explained:

Potential losers in this equation, in addition to trophy wives, are women with poor career prospects.

The clear winners are women with careers and, of course, the men they marry… Guys have more money, more sex, and less responsibility.

One side effect of the availability of contraception to better educated women was that young women with poor career prospects were also left with a pool of more unattractive men to marry.

Many of these young women who wanted to have  baby chose just to have the child, and perhaps marry the father later if the responsibilities of fatherhood turned him into marriage material.

This reversal in order of parenthood and marriage  among less well educated young women was one of the surprising social developments in the mid to late 20th century.


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