Women Working: What’s the Pill Got to Do With It?

Course Outline

Women Working: What’s the Pill Got to Do With It?

At the turn of the century, it was rare for a woman to get a college degree or join, and stay in, the workforce. One trailblazer was Katherine McCormick. She was the second woman ever to graduate from MIT, a suffragist, advocate for women’s education, and later philanthropist. McCormick was also a staunch supporter of birth control, going so far as to smuggle contraceptives into the United States at a time when they were illegal or highly regulated.

In the 1950s, the birth control pill was extremely controversial. Funding for its development had been pulled. McCormick stepped in and, over time, contributed nearly $23 million (in today’s dollars) of her own money to research efforts. Her financial involvement was instrumental in achieving FDA approval and widespread acceptance of “the pill.”

But what does the the pill have to do with female education or women working? For the very first time, women were in control over if and when they would have children.

Since the mid-1960s, shortly after the pill was approved as a contraceptive in the United States, female education and labor force participation rates have skyrocketed. With the ability to control when they will have children, women are able to better plan for their academic and professional future. We may take it for granted today, but half a century ago, the pill changed the game for working women.

Teacher Resources


When Katharine McCormick was born in 1875, hardly any women went to college, women couldn't vote, and birth control -- that was being made a crime. McCormick set out to change all of this. She graduated with a biology degree from MIT in 1904, only the second woman ever to graduate at MIT. She worked on the Suffrage Movement, she helped to pass the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 guaranteed women the right to vote. And throughout her life, she promoted female education.


But her greatest contribution to female education came in a way that even she might not have expected. In the 1950s, a group of scientists were working on an oral form of birth control, the pill. But the research was slow and the political climate at the time was controversial, and their funding was pulled. McCormick had been a long time supporter of birth control . . . in her earlier years, going so far as to smuggle in diaphragms from Europe. Now, at 78, she stepped in to provide the scientists with much needed financial support. Doesn't seem like a controversial idea today, but at the time, using birth control or selling it -- that could land you in jail.



So, now you're probably wondering, "Okay -- what does this all have to do with economics?" Of course, economics has to do with everything. Perhaps you recall from an earlier video that during the 20th century, the labor force participation rates of women increased significantly, especially since the mid-1960s. Not only did more women start to work in the paid labor force, but we also saw an explosion in the number of women in professional fields, like medicine and law.



Research by the economist Claudia Goldin with Lawrence Katz and also Martha Bailey, shows that the major factor explaining these dramatic increases was the invention and legalization of the pill. The pill was approved for sale in the United States in 1960. But incredibly, 24 states at that time still prohibited the sale of any contraceptive. And a number of other states restricted sales to married women only. In Connecticut, not only was the sale of birth control illegal, it was illegal to use it with violations punishable with a prison sentence.



Nevertheless, growing demand for the pill pushed it onto center stage. There was a nationwide debate about women's rights and sexuality. Some people feared sexual anarchy if the pill became widely used. Others felt that it was a fundamental right of a woman to control when she would have a child. In 1965, the Supreme Court stepped into this debate. They ruled that what a married couple did in the privacy of their own bedroom -- that was their business, not the government's.



As the pill became more widely available with these rulings, the number of women entering professional degree programs exploded. This graph from our textbook with Tyler, Modern Principles, shows how, from 1955 to about 1970, fewer than 10% of the students entering these programs were women. But by 1980, those rates had doubled. And then they doubled again. So that by 1995, lots of professional programs had 40 to 50% women entrants. Now, clearly, other things were also changing during this time.



So how do we know that the pill was a driving force? One strong piece of evidence is that the states that legalized the pill earlier -- they also had earlier increases in female professional education and labor force participation rates. So, what exactly was it about the pill that made it easier for women to participate in the paid labor force? Overall, it wasn't that the pill reduced the number of children. Much more important was that the pill gave women greater control over when children were born.



It's another story of incentives. Economist Martha Bailey summed it up by providing a low-cost means of delaying childbearing. Oral contraception allowed women to remain in school, pursue longer-term careers, and work more in the paid labor force during ages historically associated with childbearing. If you look around MIT today, you can find McCormick Hall, an all-female residence that was one of Katharine McCormick's last gifts. But if you really want to see her influence, take a look at all the female students studying engineering, medicine, law, and of course, economics.



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