The careers of women and their age at first marriage both changed significantly in the United States with cohorts born just prior to 1950. Women first began to enter professional programs, such as medicine and law, in large numbers in 1970 and their entry caused the fraction female in these programs to rise steeply. Women were 10 percent of first year law students in 1970, but were 36 percent in 1980. The fraction married among young college graduate women decreased for the same cohorts. Among the cohort of female college graduates born in 1950, almost 50 percent married before age 23, but fewer than 30 percent did for those born in 1957.
We ask whether the birth control pill and the legislation that enabled young women to obtain it altered women’s career plans and the age at first marriage. Our answer is that they did. The empirical argument relies on the timing of various changes. Legal changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s enabled the diffusion of the pill among young single women. Their pill use first began to increase with cohorts born around 1948 and we explore, with cross-section data from 1971, the role of law changes in enabling pill use. Beginning in 1972, and continuing to 1979, the fraction of college women marrying a year or two after graduation plummeted. The pill encouraged the delay of marriage through several routes and we establish the connection by estimating the effect of law changes in a state fixed-effects framework. The pill directly and immediately lowered the costs to women of engaging in long-term career investments by giving them almost complete certainty and safety regarding the pregnancy consequences of sexual activity. The delay of marriage, beginning a year or two later, endowed the pill with a “”social multiplier”” or indirect effect by reducing the costs in the marriage market to women who delayed marriage to invest in careers. The relative increase of women to men in professional programs began its rapid ascent in 1970, just as the first pill cohorts began to graduate from college.
Our framework, therefore, confers two effects on the pill. The first, which we term the direct effect, is that the pill greatly increased the reliability of contraception and its ease of use. In the absence of reliable contraception, young women embarking on a lengthy professional education would have to pay the penalty of abstinence or cope with considerable uncertainty regarding pregnancy. The pill enabled women to invest in expensive, long-duration training and not pay as high a price.
The second role for the pill is termed here the indirect (or social multiplier) effect. The pill affected all women, not just career women, and affected men as well. With the advent of the pill all individuals could delay marriage and not pay as large a penalty. Women who invest in a lengthy education often delay marriage until completing their initial career preparation. If in the interim most everyone else marries, the pool of eligible bachelors will be reduced and career women will have to settle for a lesser match at the end of the training period. If, instead, others delay marriage, the career woman will pay a smaller penalty. The pill, by encouraging the delay of marriage for most youth, created a “”thicker”” marriage market for career women. Thus the pill may have enabled more women to opt for careers by indirectly lowering the cost of a lengthy career investment period.
Adapted from The Power of The Pill by Lawrence Katz, 2000
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