Raises Not Roses: The Equal Pay Act at 50
On June 10, 1963 President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act intended to end wage disparities and discrimination based on gender. Unfortunately, we are not celebrating 50 years of economic equality today. Admittedly, in his remarks following the signing, the President characterized the bill as just the first of step of many, calling for increased and improved support for working women, including tax assistance, affordable childcare options, and more robust welfare programs. Showing how far we’ve come but also how far we have yet to go, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law. The act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and re-sets the statute of limitations for filing an equal pay lawsuit with each new paycheck affected by the alleged discriminatory action.
The Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to compensate men and women differently for the same work, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits gender-based hiring; however, research indicates the persistence of compensation discrepancies along gender lines with no corresponding difference in quality of work performed. Here’s a brief summary of where we are right now: women comprise approximately 47 percent of the national workforce, an increasing number of women are acting as the primary income earners for their families, and yet the gender wage gap still exists, with women making roughly 81 percent of the earnings of their male counterparts. The gap persists across age groups, races, educational levels, and industrial sectors, although the amount of that disparity differs with respect to each of these factors. For example, in the four age groupings of full-time workers 35 and older, women had earnings ranging from 75-80 percent of their male counterparts, whereas 25 to 34 year old women earned 91 percent of men their age, and 16 to 24 year old women earned 95 percent as much. Similar breakdowns in earning differences focused on races and ethnicities, educational levels, occupational category, state of residence, marital status belie the issue’s complexity and underscore the interplay between class, gender, economic, and racial issues. Some contend that these gaps are not as prominent as the data suggests and that when they do occur, discrepancies are not necessarily due to discrimination, but rather the extent to which men and women make different choices in the workplace, such as negotiating for a higher starting salary.
The issue is certainly a complex and contested one that can be explained more thoroughly by economists and sociologists. What often gets lost in these studies and reports, however, is the voice of the workers themselves. One of the many ways to access this voice is by examining the documentary evidence related to women in the workplace that has been collected, saved, and donated to the labor collections at the Tamiment Library.
One such collection documents the activities of the Long Island advocacy organization Women on the Job (WOJ), which sought to foster equal employment opportunities for women and combat workplace discrimination. “Women are getting angry about pay inequities and are determined to do something about them,” stated Lillian McCormick, WOJ Director, in a press release issued by the organization. The group promoted awareness of gender issues in the workplace, lobbied for and monitored enforcement of legislation, offered training in sexual harassment prevention, and supported the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. Their programs included community education, community organizing, coalition building, counseling services, research, legal referral services, and the publication and distribution of information concerning women’s employment and employment opportunities in Long Island. The group held lectures, distributed newsletters, sponsored workshops, and organized conferences to educate and empower women on issues such as racial equality in the workplace, the role of unions for women workers, the opening of non-traditional jobs to women, and strategies for dealing with contract negotiations.
The materials in this collection present the issue of equal pay in its fullness, illustrating the complex constellation of social and economic factors as it affects real people. The collection also shows the agency of these people who did not remain idle in their dissatisfaction, but rather, sought to change the situation for themselves and their fellow workers. The documents illustrate the issue in a way that statistics and graphs simply cannot. Taken together, these different types of sources are complementary, providing a more complete representation of this highly complex labor rights and human rights issue. Here we are 50 years after the signing of the Equal Pay Act; where will we be at 100?