This week marks the 50th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that gave married couples access to contraception and paved the way for women’s increasingly widespread ability to take the pill. The capacity to plan and space births revolutionized their lives, and with them our economy. They flooded the workplace, investing in their own careers without fear that surprise babies would throw them off track.
But in the past quarter-century, American women’s rush to work outside the home has flatlined. Women have made as much progress as they can with birth control; they need a second revolution to continue working and expanding our economy.
The impact of contraception on the economy is hard to understate. Economists have found that access to the pill allowed women to spend time and money getting training and education without worrying about whether they’d have to stop for unwanted pregnancies. In turn, they were able to pursue careers. They were also able to delay marriage, which helped career women attract husbands.
The outcome was extraordinary. Access to contraception accounted for more than 30 percent of women’s expansion into skilled professions between 1970 and 1990. It’s also responsible for at least 15 percent of the sharp spike in how many hours women between the ages of 16 and 30 were spending at work during the same period. We can trace this directly back to Griswold: Women who were affected by the decision worked about two to three weeks more a year compared with those who weren’t able to access contraception right away.
We have all benefited from this revolution. In 1950, just 18 million women worked outside the home. By the 1980s, after access to contraception had become widespread and normalized, 60 percent of women of reproductive age were employed. If women hadn’t dramatically increased the time they spent working for pay since the 1970s, GDP would have been 11 percent smaller in 2012. That’s nearly twice the economic boost we got from information, communication, and technology-producing industries combined that same year. Put another way, women contributed more than $1.7 trillion to greater economic output, about equivalent to our combined spending on some of the largest government programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
But the revolution is now stalled. American women’s labor force participation peaked in the 1990s but has since plateaued, only reaching about 75 percent. Other developed countries have done a lot better: In 21 of them, the average is nearly 80 percent. In 1990, the United States ranked at No. 6 among them for our share of women who worked outside the home. Since then, we’ve plummeted to No. 17.
Economists have been able to pinpoint the reasons we’re lagging behind. We haven’t guaranteed access to paid family leave. We don’t facilitate employees’ ability to adjust their schedules at work. And we don't spend enough on child care and early childhood education. In short, we’ve failed to make life feasible for families with two working parents. We are one of just three countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave (70 also guarantee fathers paid time off when their children arrive), and we rank 21st among developed countries for spending on preschool. If we had kept up with the rest of the world on these policies, American women’s labor force participation would be 82 percent.
American women have done a remarkable job of using the power they gained from contraception to change their lives and thus change our economy and society. The country would look completely different if they weren’t in charge of their fertility and if they hadn’t marched into the workplace in such huge numbers. But the country would also look a whole lot different today if we had kept pace with their desire to work. If we don’t meet them at least halfway with a policy regime that gives them adequate support to stay in the workforce, we’ll know precisely who’s to blame when they start giving up.