Sex and the Single Girl: The Pill and a Century of Unwed Childbearing

Källarsalen Session 5: The role of educational policy, sex education and contraceptives for gender equality organized by Annika Elwert and Volha Lazuka


Kelly Ragan


A century of fertility data spanning the pill’s introduction informs a model where women’s demand for premarital sex is a function of local customs for preventing unwed birth and equilibrium determined social sanctions against promiscuity. The model predicts a positive relationship between historical illegitimacy and initial demand for the pill, followed by convergence in both pill use and unwed birth across localities as the pill supplants custom as a means of fertility control. These predictions are consistent with three decades of direct data on pill sales and unwed childbearing data which spans two centuries. Historical illegitimacy identifies an important source of latent demand for the pill. The theory motivates an empirical model where this source of latent demand is used to instrument for an exogenous source of pill use and estimate the pill’s impact on unwed childbearing among Swedish teens. Counter to prominent theories which have linked fertility control liberalization and the pill with rising rates of unwed childbearing, the data strongly suggest the pill’s diffusion led to a sharp decline in both the number and share of out-of-wedlock teen births, confirming another prediction of the theory developed here.


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