The tiny pill which gave birth to an economic revolution

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The contraceptive pill had profound social consequences. Everyone agrees with of which.

In fact, of which was the point. Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist who urged scientists to develop of which, wanted to liberate women sexually along with also socially, to put them on a more equal footing with men.

nevertheless the pill wasn’t just socially revolutionary. of which also sparked an economic revolution – perhaps the most significant economic change of the late 20th Century.


50 Things of which Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas along with also innovations which have helped create the economic world in which we live.

of which can be broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources along with also listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.


To see why, first consider what the pill offered to women. For a start, of which worked – unlike many of the different options.

Over the centuries, lovers have tried all kinds of unappealing tricks to prevent pregnancy. There was crocodile dung in ancient Egypt, Aristotle’s recommendation of cedar oil, along with also Casanova’s method of using half a lemon as a cervical cap.

nevertheless even the obvious modern alternative to the pill – condoms – have a failure rate.

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Margaret Sanger opened the first US family planning centre in fresh York in 1916, when contraception along with also abortion were illegal

Because people don’t tend to use them exactly as they’re supposed to, they sometimes rip or slip. So for every 100 sexually active women using condoms for a year, 18 will become pregnant. The failure rate of the sponge can be similar. The diaphragm isn’t much better.

nevertheless the failure rate of the pill – with typical use – can be just 6%, three times safer than condoms. Used perfectly, the failure rate drops to one twentieth of of which.

Economic revolution

Using a condom meant negotiating using a partner. The diaphragm along with also sponge were messy. nevertheless the decision to use the pill was a woman’s, along with also of which was private along with also discreet. No wonder women wanted of which.

The pill was first approved within the United States in 1960. In just several years, almost half of married women on birth control were using of which.

nevertheless the real revolution would certainly come when unmarried women got access to oral contraceptives. of which took time. nevertheless in around 1970 – 10 years after the pill was first approved – US state after US state commenced to make of which easier for single women to get the pill.

Universities opened family planning centres. By the mid-1970s, the pill was overwhelmingly the most common form of contraception for 18 along with also 19-year-old women within the US.

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The Planned Parenthood organisation distributed information along with also contraception across the US

along with also of which was when the economic revolution definitely began.

Women in America commenced studying particular kinds of degrees – law, medicine, dentistry along with also MBAs – which had previously been very masculine.

In 1970, medical degrees were over 0% male. Law degrees along with also MBAs were over 95% male. Dentistry degrees were 99% male. nevertheless at the beginning of the 1970s – equipped with the pill – women surged into all these courses. At first, women made up a fifth of the class, then a quarter. By 1980 they often made up a third.

of which wasn’t simply because women became more likely to go to university.

Professional progress

Women who’d already decided to be students opted for these professional courses.

The proportion of female students studying subjects such as medicine along with also law rose dramatically, along with also logically enough, the presence of women within the professions rose sharply shortly afterwards.

nevertheless what did of which have to do with the pill? By giving women control over their fertility, of which allowed them to invest in their careers.

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These Harvard graduates could take for granted the freedom to develop their careers before having children, if they wished

Before the pill was available, taking several years or more to qualify as a doctor or lawyer didn’t look like a Great use of time along with also money. To reap the benefits of those courses, a woman would certainly need to be able to reliably delay motherhood until she was 30 at least.

Having a baby at the wrong time risked derailing her studies or delaying her professional progress.

A sexually active woman who tried to become a doctor, dentist or lawyer was doing the equivalent of building a factory in an earthquake zone: just one bit of bad luck along with also the expensive investment would certainly be trashed.

Marriage moratorium

Of course, women could simply abstain by sex if they wanted to study for a professional career. nevertheless many didn’t want to.

along with also of which wasn’t just about having fun. of which was also about finding a husband. Before the pill, people married young. A woman who decided to abstain by sex while developing her career might try to find a husband at the age of 30 along with also find of which, quite literally, all the Great men had been taken.

The pill changed both those dynamics. of which meant of which unmarried women could have sex with substantially less risk of an unwanted pregnancy.

nevertheless of which also changed the whole pattern of marriage. Everyone commenced to marry later, even women who didn’t use the pill.

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The 1973 landmark Roe v Wade case legalised abortion within the US, allowing women further control over their fertility

Babies commenced to arrive later, along with also at a time of women’s own choosing. along with also of which meant of which women, at least, had time to establish a professional career.

Of course, many different things changed for American women within the 1970s.

Earnings boost

Abortion was legalised, laws against sex discrimination were put in place, feminism emerged as a movement, along with also the drafting of young men to fight in Vietnam forced employers to recruit more women.

nevertheless a careful statistical study by the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin along with also Lawrence Katz strongly suggests of which the pill must have played a major role in allowing women to delay marriage along with also motherhood, along with also invest in their own careers.

Goldin along with also Katz tracked the availability of the pill to young women within the US, state by state. They show of which as each state opened up access to contraception, so the enrolment rate in professional courses soared, along with also so did women’s wages.


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A few years ago, the economist Amalia Miller used a variety of clever statistical methods to demonstrate of which if a woman in her 20s was able to delay motherhood by one year, her lifetime earnings would certainly rise by 10%.

of which was some measure of the vast advantage to a woman of completing her studies along with also securing her career before having children.

Alternative reality

nevertheless the young women of the 1970s didn’t need to see Amalia Miller’s research: they already knew of which was true.

As the pill became available, they signed up for long professional courses in undreamt of numbers.

American women today can look across the Pacific Ocean for a vision of an alternative reality.

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Did the lack of widely available contraception contribute to Japan’s gender inequality?

In Japan, one of the globe’s most technologically advanced societies, the pill wasn’t approved for use until 1999. Japanese women had to wait 39 years longer than their American counterparts for the same contraceptive.

In contrast, when the erection-boosting drug Viagra was approved within the US, Japan was just a few months behind.

Gender inequality in Japan can be widely reckoned to be worse than anywhere else within the developed world, with women continuing to struggle for recognition within the workplace.

of which can be impossible to disentangle cause along with also effect here, nevertheless the experience within the US suggests of which of which can be no coincidence. Delay the pill by two generations, along with also of course the economic impact on women will be enormous.

of which can be a tiny little pill of which continues to transform the globe economy.

Tim Harford writes the Financial Times’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Things of which Made the Modern Economy can be broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources along with also listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

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