Planning Motherhood: The Pill and the Social Transformations it Helped Us Realize

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Planning Motherhood: The Pill and the Social Transformations it Helped Us Realize

Elizabeth Gregory

The birth control pill helped redefine the dynamics of motherhood and transform the lives of women, men and their kids, both physically and socially.

May 9th was both Mother’s Day and the 50th anniversary of the announcement that the birth control pill would be approved for widespread use – a move that redefined the dynamics of motherhood and transformed the lives of women, men and their kids, both physically and socially.  In the US, the birthrate fell 44 percent in the 15 years after 1960, where it’s basically stayed ever since.  The average woman has 2.05 kids these days, down from 3.6 kids in the 1950s.

While it’s often discussed in personal terms, birth control has major positive public outcomes that directly affect the economy and the polity.   But obstacles remain to realizing the full value of these benefits. It’s time for the follow-through that will allow all women to participate robustly in the paid economy while raising the citizens who will sustain future prosperity.  The two are intimately linked.

Birth control itself wasn’t new in 1960 (the average births per woman fell from 7.0 to 3.5 between 1800 and 1900, due in some part to the invention of rubber), but the reliability and the context were.  As Elaine Tyler May notes, the pill could gain acceptance only within an already-shifting social framework of expanding educational options and diminishing social constraints for women.  But within that frame, it moved women’s progress to a new stage, allowing us to not only limit the number of kids we ultimately had but to delay their birth while we first went to school and then became established in the work-place. 

Delay unraveled the old social fabric, woven for millennia around the assumption that women would be baby machines, devoting their lives to producing and raising the next generation. It was the flood of babies demanding care who for ages kept women out of schools and, as a result, out of power.  Public policy does not reflect women’s interests because they have never been full participants in its making.  But delay has made it possible for women to begin to be heard.  Gradually women are trickling up into the business and government hierarchies, though their numbers are still low (only 17 percent of Congress, 15 percent of board directors and 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female).

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The new Pew Research Center report documents the demographic shift toward older, more educated moms over the past 20 years. The teen birthrate is down 30 percent from 1990, while births to women ages 35 to 39 are up 48 percent, and 80 percent for women ages 40 to 44. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports allow us to track further back toward the root of the upward trend.  Where, in 1970, one in 16 births overall was to a mom 35+, by 1990 one in 11 births were to women in this age group, rising to one in seven by 2008.  Where in 1970, one in 100 first births was to a woman 35 or over, it was one in 22 in 1990 and it’s one in 12 today.   

On the big scale, limiting population growth at a time when technology had cut the need for agricultural workers and the earth was getting crowded had clear benefits.  At the micro level, birth control allowed families to decide how many kids they wanted (if any) and when, freeing young women and men to develop their own human capital before kids arrived and to invest more of that capital in each child when they became parents. 

Educated women transform our workforce demographics in several ways: Not only do they raise fewer but more educated workers – necessary for the emerging economy – but they themselves add to the educated workforce – replacing the children they did not bear.   They also live – and work – longer, due in part to the fact that they’re having fewer kids.  

Up until recently, women’s work has been limited to bearing and rearing the workforce for free (perversely framed as private pleasure and not included in the GDP though essential to it) and/or to work outside the home in a restricted set of jobs (teacher, nurse, cook, cleaner, secretary, sex worker) all linked to the work they were doing at home for free – to which they were constrained by their limited education (due to early childbearing) and because they often needed part-time work with flexible schedules to care for kids since no good affordable childcare was available. The large pool created by this constraint meant that they faced lots of competition within those few trades, so their wages have been low. The fact that the same tasks were done for free at home, contributed to the general expectation that they were not worth much.

But when sex and babies cease to be directly linked, business and government risk losing their major underwriter—the moms. Indeed, that’s what’s happened in countries like Japan and Italy, where the number of births is well below the 2.1 kids per couple replacement rate – at 1.2 and 1.3 respectively.  These low rates link to lack of supportive policies for women who want to combine work and childrearing.  Given the enormous amount of labor and cost and the lack of social power that motherhood involves, it’s not surprising that many find it unattractive.  In the Pew study, 24 percent of childless women of childbearing age said they did not plan to have any kids.

The introduction of the Pill 50 years ago was an important step in the process of re-gendering the work world, but we still have far to go to reach an environment that supports the production of good citizens and workers by non-exploitative means. Which is to say, an environment that pays fair wages for work done regardless of gender; recognizes the work of childrearing as a contribution to the nation; supports working families with access to a national system of good, affordable childcare; and makes it possible for women to raise children without sacrificing the chance to build a career and contribute to the wider economy over the long-term. Thinking of birth control’s economic effects puts moves to limit access in telling perspective. 

As Houston mayor Annise Parker noted recently, putting women in the policy-making mix changes both “HOW issues are debated and WHAT issues are debated.”  This Mother’s Day, we can celebrate mom and the progress birth control has enabled over the past 50 years toward giving mothers and all women an equal voice in the shaping of business and public policy.  Then Monday we can get back to work toward the goal.