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The long and frustrating history of the gender wage gap

Early History of the Wage Gap 

Though the gender wage gap probably dates to the beginnings of civilization, it emerged as a political issue in the U.S. in the 1860s under the rallying cry of “Equal Pay for Equal Work.” Among the movement’s most vigorous advocates were women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who made the case for bridging the wage gap in their newspaper, The Revolution, and in speeches such as “The Power of the Ballot to Bring Woman Equal Pay for Equal Work.”

Nearly 40 years after they met, Susan B. Anthony (left) and fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued to work together to fight for women’s right to vote.

Women eventually won the right to vote in the United States with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. to the Constitution in 1920. Nevertheless, the wage gap lingered on.

The 1940s: A Failed Attempt to Bridge the Gap 

In 1944, Winifred Stanley, a Republican congresswoman from New York, introduced a bill titled Prohibiting Discrimination in Pay on Account of Sex. It would have amended the list of unfair labor practices in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to include discriminating “against any employee, in the rate of compensation paid, on account of sex.” Stanley’s bill never made it through Congress.

Winifred C. Stanley of Buffalo served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1943 to 1945.

The 1960s: Major Strides for Equal Pay and Civil Rights 

The next major attempt to address the inequity on a national level came two decades later, with the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. It prohibited employers from paying male and female workers different wages for “jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions.” However, it also allowed for a number of exceptions, including pay structures that were based on seniority or merit.

AAUW members Minnie Miles (front row, fourth from right) and Reps. Edith Green (left of president, in white suit), Martha Griffiths (second from right), and Julia Hansen (far right) with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963. CREDIT: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

In signing the bill into law, President John F. Kennedy said that paying men and women different wages for the same work was “an unconscionable practice” and cited a statistic that “the average woman worker earns only 60% of the average wage for men.”

A year later, in 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also addressed the wage gap, broadening the law to make compensation decisions based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin unlawful. As with the Equal Pay Act, there were multiple exceptions, including seniority- and merit-based wage programs.

The 1970s and 1980s: A Call for Comparable Worth 

In the 1970s and ’80s, the concept of “comparable worth,” or “pay equity,” entered the national conversation. Its proponents called attention to wage gaps between workers in jobs that, while not identical, could be considered similar in terms of skills, responsibility, and value to the overall enterprise. Often, they argued, those gaps were a legacy of past discrimination.

“Many women and people of color are still segregated into a small number of jobs such as clerical, service workers, nurses, and teachers,” the advocacy group National Committee on Pay Equity explained. “These jobs have historically been undervalued and continue to be underpaid to a large extent because of the gender and race of the people who hold them.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Carter administration, singled out comparable worth as “the issue of the ’80s.” However, the Reagan administration, which came next, firmly opposed it. President Ronald Reagan reportedly called it “Mickey Mouse, a cockamamie idea…[that] would destroy the basis of free enterprise.” Pay equity and comparable worth made little progress on the federal level but did become law in a number of states.

The 2000s: Win Some, Lose Some 

A 2007 Supreme Court case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., led to the next major federal law. Lilly Ledbetter had sued her employer under the Civil Rights Act, alleging that it had underpaid her for 19 years. A jury awarded her more than $3.5 million, but Goodyear appealed, arguing that she had failed to file her suit within 180 days of when the discrimination first occurred, as prescribed by law. An appeals court reversed the original decision, and the Supreme Court also ruled against Ledbetter in a 5-4 vote.

Lilly Ledbetter
equal pay advocate

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in dissenting, suggested that it was now a matter for Congress to take up, which Congress soon did. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed in 2009, expanded the period for filing a discrimination claim, making it easier for other women to sue employers they believed had discriminated against them. It was the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama, just nine days after his inauguration.

The most recent major legislative proposal to address the wage gap is the Paycheck Fairness Act, first introduced in 2009. Among other things, it calls for greater enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and increased penalties for violators. The Paycheck Fairness Act initially passed the House but failed in the Senate. In the years since then it has been reintroduced several times, most recently in 2019.

The Wage Gap Today 

Despite progress on the legislative front over the past 100 years, the wage gap has been slow to narrow. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women working full time in 1960 earned about 60 cents for every dollar earned by men—the number cited by President Kennedy in signing the Equal Pay Act.

Though the numbers gradually inched up over the next 30 years, they didn’t reach 70 cents until 1990. In 2018, the latest year for which data is available, women were earning about 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, the Census Bureau says.

Members of the U.S. women’s soccer team are using the slogan “Equal Play Equal Pay” to promote their wage fight. From left, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn.Credit…U.S.W.N.T. Players Association

The gender wage gap also varies substantially by race. According to 2017 data from the Department of Labor, Hispanic women earned just 53 cents for every dollar earned by White non-Hispanic men, while Black women earned 61 cents, White non-Hispanic women earned 77 cents, and Asian women earned 85 cents.

Though these numbers are widely quoted, they are not universally accepted. Skeptics on the right argue that the gender wage gap is actually much smaller, saying the numbers are distorted by, among other things, the fact that men tend to work longer hours. Those on the left, meanwhile, maintain that the gap is even worse because part-time and part-year workers aren’t included in the comparison. Still, few disagree that the wage gap exists, has been around for decades, and seems unlikely to close anytime soon.

By Greg Daugherty

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