The Pill at 50: It's About Money, Not Sex

BlogHer Original Post

When you sit down with a financial planner and hear that if you want your baby to be able to attend private college in 17 years you'd best set aside half a million dollars, it can really change your thinking. People always ask me, do you plan to have more than two children? And I'll crack, "Not unless we win the lottery." And a lot of the people look a bit offended, as if I’ve said something crass and taboo. You’re not supposed to measure babies by their cost. Perhaps. But the U.S birth rate has fallen during the Recession, for the first time since 2000. That's not an accident.

Birth control pills lying on a bathroom sink

The birth control Pill is now 50 years old. I was absorbed by Nancy Gibbs' article in Time magazine that traced the history of the Pill since its introduction. What's most clear in the article is that reliable contraception, more than any other single factor, enables women’s current status as breadwinners. 79% of married employees are part of a dual-earner couple (up from 66% in 1977).  In 2008, women contributed 44% of the annual dual-earner family income, up from 39% in 1997, according to Families and Work Institute.

"There is a straight line between the Pill and the changes in family structure we now see," says National Organization for Women (NOW) president Terry O'Neill in the article, "with 22% of women earning more than their husbands. In 1970, 70% of women with children under 6 were at home; 30% worked. Now that's roughly reversed."

The origins of birth control were to allow married women the ability to control how many children they had. This was not a lifestyle choice. This was to prevent ill health, poverty, and child labor. You can never hear Margaret Sanger's stories about tenement mothers begging her to help them not have more babies and believe otherwise.

The same false frame of "choice" exists today. Whether or not you believe women with young children should work outside the home is irrelevant. If you think mom should stay home and you can afford it, great. But that's just not the case for the huge, vast majority of Americans. There’s been much scholarship on the need for two incomes today. Many women with young children at home work because they want to, but at least 50% of U.S. women work because they must to simply make ends meet. And surely, an even greater percentage works because they want their children to have opportunities and advantages, such as going to college. It's disingenuous to think otherwise, even if some may wish it so. When I read this quote from Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the Time article, I was reminded of how powerful this false narrative of choice is. He says, "I'm certain feminists champion that [the Pill] as a tremendous gain necessary for their liberation in the workforce and elsewhere -- I think it's fair to say social conservatives have great concerns about that entire package."

Well, Albert, I have concerns about the "entire package" too: a country where childcare, family life, health care and education are so expensive families cannot afford their lives. If I didn’t have the ability to control my childbearing, then I’d really be in trouble, eh?

On a macro level, the true impact of the Pill comes down to economics, not libido or promiscuity, or in my opinion, morality. People had sex before the Pill. The consequences were just a lot more dire.

In the Time piece, Gibbs writes, "As an Indiana teacher, 23, told TIME in 1967, 'When I got married I was still in college, and I wanted to be certain that I finished. Now we want to buy a home, and it's going to be possible a lot sooner if I teach. With the Pill I know I can keep earning money and not worry about an accident that would ruin everything.'" Sadly, it’s not that different today.

Morra Aarons-Mele


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