The pill has come under fire lately, from Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and conservatives and Catholics who don’t want all employers to have to pay for their employees’ birth control. That’s one debate. But here’s something that can’t be debated: Access to birth control pill is directly related to women’s ability to work, to plan, and to have any kind of life outside of raising children. In a short post this morning, New York Times economics reporter Annie Lowrey compiles an amazing selection of stats and arguments that makes crystal clear how women’s careers are directly connected to birth control.
First, the basics: Research shows that the pill increases the number of hours that women are able to work, gives them access to careers like law and medicine, and increases the number of working women in the economy over all. “By allowing women to delay marriage and childbearing, the pill has also helped them invest in their skills and education, join the work force in greater numbers, move into higher-status and better-paying professions and make more money over all,” Lowrey writes. Here are five more ways the pill has changed the lives of women who want to work outside the home:
The pill increases women’s wages. One study find that young women who got access to the pill in the 1960s eventually earned an 8% premium on their earnings by the time they were 50.
The pill narrows the wage gap. The same paper suggests that the pill is responsible for a whopping 30% of the narrowing of the gap between women’s and men’s wages between 1990 and 2000.
The pill lets women plan for the future. “One of the most influential and frequently cited studies of the impact the pill has had on women’s lives comes from Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz,” Lowrey writes. “The two Harvard economists argue that the pill gave women ‘far greater certainty regarding the pregnancy consequences of sex.’ That ‘lowered the costs of engaging in long-term career investments,’ freeing women to finish high school or go to college, for instance, rather than settling down.”
The pill lets women find better partners. The pill separates sex and marriage, which is exactly what conservatives are afraid of. But that separation lets young people delay marriage until they find the person who’s actually right for them.
The pill boosts average women. It’s not all about super-high achievers putting off having children forever, and it’s not just about saving those who are struggling desperately. The first study cited by Lowrey found that almost all of the pill-attributed wage gains went to women “in the middle of the IQ distribution.” These women had significantly higher wages throughout their 20s, and even more in their 30s and 40s, than whose without the pill. The pill enabled these “middle ability” women to plan their careers and “opt into” paid work.
Whether or not you think private employers should be forced to cover contraception in all cases — though it must be noted that President Obama’s compromise on this ensures that won’t be the case — these are fascinating, thought-provoking stats. It’s easy to take the pill for granted, but it only became definitively legal for single women in the 1970s. No matter who’s paying for the pill, working women can’t forget what it does for us. If we give this up, we give up almost everything.