The contraceptive pill had profound social consequences. Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist who urged scientists to develop it, wanted to liberate women sexually and socially, to put them on a more equal footing with men.
But the pill wasn’t just socially revolutionary. It also sparked an economic revolution – perhaps the most significant economic change of the late 20th Century. The pill was first approved in the United States in 1960. In just five years, almost half of married women on birth control were using it.
But the real revolution would come when unmarried women got access to oral contraceptives. That took time. But in around 1970 – 10 years after the pill was first approved – US state after US state started to make it easier for single women to get the pill.
Universities opened family planning centres. By the mid-1970s, the pill was overwhelmingly the most popular form of contraception for 18 and 19-year-old women in the US. Women in America started studying particular kinds of degrees – law, medicine, dentistry and MBAs – which had previously been very masculine.
In 1970, medical degrees were over 90% male. Law degrees and MBAs were over 95% male. Dentistry degrees were 99% male. But 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.