The Fight for Equal Pay: History and Current Status

Like any women’s right issue, the quest for equal pay has been a long journey. While women have historically been compensated less than male colleagues, there have been attempts to correct this injustice dating all the way back to the 1870s.

Bearing in mind that women are still only earning about 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, let’s take a look back at the political progress that has been paved throughout American history, as well as the status of equal pay legislation today.

A Surprisingly Early Equal Pay Law

Male female income equality concept

Believe it or not, the first federal legislation regarding equal pay was passed all the way back in 1872, although it pertained only to government employees. At the time, thousands of women worked federal jobs, yet they typically earned literally half of what their male colleagues did in similar positions.

Most of these women weren’t working for a supplemental income, either – a lot of them had been widowed in the Civil War and needed to support their families. It took a couple of years, but Congress finally agreed that women should receive equal pay for equal work.

Since female employees in the private sector or even at local government jobs did not receive this same guarantee, it still left the majority of working women vulnerable to unfair pay practices. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that Congress gave legitimacy to this issue well before women had the right to vote.

More Women Working in Wartime


During both World War I and World War II, the United States needed women to join the workforce to keep the economy flowing. Therefore, the societal rules that discouraged women from working were loosened, and a growing number of women had an interest in full-time employment.

Many of the women that took wartime jobs were fortunate to receive equal pay to the men who had vacated the jobs in order to fight abroad. Though the industries would have probably tried to lower the salaries otherwise, labor organizations fought to ensure that women were compensated equally.

Make no mistake – the unions that fought for equal pay for women were not necessarily taking some bold feminist stance. Instead, they were looking out for the male employees, afraid that the companies would try to pay men less when they returned from war since women had done the same work for less money.

After the Wars, a New Push for Equal Pay

Leffler_-_WomensLib1970_WashingtonDCLibrary of Congress

In 1947, a push for equal pay laws grew more traction than anytime since the previous century. The Secretary of Labor, Lewis Schwellenbach, advocated for equal pay legislation, famously declaring, “There is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays – there should be none in her pay envelope.”

Alas, Schwellenbach’s male colleagues were not in favor of his laws. Now that men were back from war and looking to reintegrate into the workforce, politicians were hesitant to do anything that would support female employees since – in their view – they had “taken” men’s jobs.

You might assume that social progress would help women workers in the right direction, but that was not the case. In actuality, the wage gap between men and women widened during the 1950s. With renewed resentment for women in the workplace, passing legal protections seemed like the best recourse for women.

To their credit, several politicians did try. Relevant legislation was proposed multiple times in Congress, starting with the Women’s Equal Pay Bill, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Chase Woodhouse, a Democrat from Connecticut; Senator Claude Pepper, a Democrat from Florida; and Senator Wayne Morse, a Republican from Oregon. The subsequent Green-Rogers Bill put forth by Representative Edith Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts, and Representative Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, also gained traction.

Congress repeatedly failed to pass either bill, but political sentiment on this subject was definitely evolving. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower endorsed passing equal pay legislation as “a matter of simple justice.”

The Equal Pay Act Finally Passes


Progress could not be ignored forever, fortunately. Thanks in large part to the efforts of women’s rights activists, in 1963, Congress finally passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (see full text here,) which borrowed a lot of the language found in previous failed bills.

The laws that the Equal Pay Act established were pretty strong for the time. After clearly outlining why the wage gap needed to be addressed, it declared that men and women must be compensated equally for similar work within the same company. That didn’t just apply to the salary – bonuses, health insurance and perks like vacation time all had to be equal, too.

On top of that, the Equal Pay Act provided recourse for employees who weren’t being compensated equally to hold their employers accountable.

Though the impact of the bill has been gradual, that doesn’t make it unsuccessful. In 1963, women earned 59 percent of what men earned, but over the years that figure has reached nearly 80 percent. Seemingly, the legislation has done a lot to ensure that wages are fairer, but we’re still a good way away from equality.

And Then… Nothing, With One Notable Exception

Lilly_Ledbetter_DNC_2008Lilly Ledbetter at DNC by Qqqqqq

At the time President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, he praised its importance to American society, but also referred to it as a “first step.” That, of course, would imply that more steps would follow. Somehow, in the ensuing 50 plus years, Congress has failed to provide updated laws regarding equal pay to reflect the changing times.

The one big Congressional victory is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009. The legislation was based on the legal experience of Lilly Ledbetter. After nearly 20 years of employment as a supervisor at Goodyear Tire, Ledbetter discovered she had not been compensated comparably to her male counterparts.

Though Ledbetter won her case initially, it was appealed to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Ledbetter could not collect damages since the statute of limitations had expired. They said she only had 180 days from the point she first received a discriminatory paycheck to file suit, even though she was unaware of the gap for decades because Goodyear forbid employees from discussing their salaries with each other.

Obviously, the 180-day limit did not offer much time for an employee to realize she is being stiffed, which is why the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act significantly extended the window to ensure that companies could be held legally responsible for this discrimination. It was such a common sense fix that even Congress managed to pass it!

The Fight for the Paycheck Fairness Act

7677801114_149e5ffb95_zNancy Pelosi

The Ledbetter incident should have never turned into a problem in the first place. As monumental as the Equal Pay Act was, workplaces have been able to exploit unanticipated loopholes that the original laws left open. New legislation could do a better job at shrinking the remaining wage gap.

That’s why for the past decade some Democratic members of Congress have been trying to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. According to the ACLU, this legislation would increase the penalties for equal pay violations, prevent bosses from retaliating against workers who investigate or ask about potential wage biases and require businesses to explain why certain salaries are different if not for the employee’s gender.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party has been pretty much unanimous in its opposition to this act. They argue that the existing equal pay laws are sufficient, while this new legislation would just increase the number of civil lawsuits against employers.

Until the faces in Congress change, it looks like equal pay laws will remain stalled. The Equal Pay Act was a great start, but it’s embarrassing that all these decades later it remains the most significant legislation on the subject to pass. Considering the wage gap persists all these years later, there’s clearly more that Washington can do to address the situation.


John B
John B10 months ago

Thanks for sharing the info.

ERIKA S12 months ago

thank you for sharing

Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hillabout a year ago

How many laws do we have to pass? There was one early in Obama's term in the presidency too.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

If USA had passed ERA- this would all be moot.

Elaine W.
Past Member 1 years ago

Women are still treated as second class citizens who need to have laws imposed about their own bodies. Equal pay for equal work? What a cute idea, dear.

Past Member
Past Member 1 years ago

Marriane C. Eisenhower was a SANE Republican. In other words. the good old days of Republicans. I am a former one thanks to vets i volunteer with.

Past Member
Past Member 1 years ago

Freddy the idiot strikes again!!! Repugs are good for a laugh.

Janet B.
Janet B1 years ago