On the Basis of Sex: Equal Pay

March is Women’s History Month. Visit the National Archives website for resources and virtual events related to women’s history. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

During World War II, when a large numbers of men went off to war, a labor shortage ensued, which women quickly filled. By 1945, 37 percent of the civilian workforce was made up of women. However, women historically earned less than men for doing the same work, and men feared that this growing source of cheaper labor would replace them or lower their own wages.

After the war, most companies replaced their women workers with returning men, with many companies hiring men only—even if they had hired women during the war. Those that did hire women changed the job descriptions in order to lower women’s pay. During the 1940s and 1950s, bills seeking equal pay for women were put forward in Congress but all failed to pass. 

In 1961, labor activist Esther Peterson, the head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, urged President Kennedy to establish the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in order to develop recommendations for achieving gender equality. Together with this commission, Esther Peterson submitted a draft bill of the Equal Pay Act to Congress on behalf of the Kennedy administration.

Segments of society opposed the Equal Pay Act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Merchants Association both argued that women were more expensive to employ than men due to the perceived added costs associated with women workers such as absenteeism, high turnover, rest periods, longer time for meals, and separate toilets. In addition, both organizations argued that the issue of equal pay was already being addressed by 21 state legislatures and that federal regulation was not necessary. 

In order to garner support and calm fears, Congress made the Equal Pay Act an amendment to an already existing law: the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA already regulated labor aspects such as minimum wage and overtime pay, and it affected most private and public employment. Although the draft bill called for equal pay for “comparable work,” the phrase was eventually changed to placate opposing parties.

Eventually, on June 10, 1963, President Kennedy signed the bill, H.R. 5056, into law with the following wording: “Discrimination against employees, in rates of compensation paid, on account of sex is hereby declared to be contrary to the public interest, and it is the policy of the United States, so far as practicable, to eliminate such discrimination.” This was one of the first anti-discrimination laws that addressed wage differences on the basis of gender. 

During the signing ceremony, President Kennedy acknowledged the “unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job.” He also remarked: “While much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity—for the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men—this legislation is a significant step forward.” 

As a final note, President Kennedy used the opportunity to highlight his goal for another federal mandate: “We have some of the most influential Members of Congress here today, and I do hope that we can get this appropriation for these day-care centers, which seems to me to be money very wisely spent, and also under consideration of the tax bill, that we can consider the needs of the working mothers, and both of these will be very helpful, and I would like to lobby in their behalf.”

The Equal Pay Act was a major step for gender equality in the United States. However, the work was not done, and activists continued to fight for equality on all fronts of the American experience, a fight that is still ongoing today

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