Date June 10, 1963
The Equal Pay Act attempted to bring equity to the setting of wages for women, bringing them to equality with men’s wages for identical work. On average, women have yet to receive wages and salaries on a par with men for jobs of “comparable worth.”
Also known as Public Law 38, 88th Congress; U.S. Code Title 29, section 206
Locale Washington, D.C.
Categories Laws, acts, and legal history; women’s issues; business and labor; social issues and reform
Summary of Event
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on June 10 of that year and was in full force one year later. The president had lent his support to the bill in 1962. In about 150 words, the act placed a federal ban on the payment of unequal wages to women and men who performed the same work. The proposed wording of the bill called for equal pay for “work of comparable quantity and quality,” a concept of “comparable worth” that remained in debate into the early twenty-first century and one that was excised before the act’s passage. The act ended one phase of a long struggle and opened a fresh phase that presidents, Congress, and the federal courts would continue to define for years to come.
Agitation for equal pay for men and women has a venerable history. In opposition to the prevailing wisdom of leading political economists and contrary to the practices of nearly all businesses, a number of British feminists, notably Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Eleanor F. Rathbone , championed versions of “equal pay for equal work” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, incorporating the demands of American feminists that dated from the 1840’s, the National Labor Union took up the cry in 1867. Most change, however, resulted from the varied impacts of the Great Depression and from the experiences attending American involvement in World War I and World War II. During the wars, millions of women occupied jobs previously dominated by men. It was during war years that policy makers nationally began grappling with the issues presented by equal pay reform and the broader problems of gender discrimination in the workplace.
The states of Michigan and Montana, for example, enacted equal pay laws in 1919, and several industrial states followed suit between 1942 and 1945, with the active backing of substantial elements of organized labor and of management. Skeptical observers concluded that widening acceptance of equal pay principles resulted from an assumption that there would be full male employment. There was no doubt that the federal government actively worked to implement equal pay. This was true particularly of the War Labor Board , which in 1945 authorized equal pay for women and men doing work of comparable quality and quantity under the same or similar conditions. In many firms where women replaced men during wartime, equalization of wage rates did occur.
Wartime advances toward equal pay gave way, however, to two subsequent decades of almost no progress, in regard not only to equal pay but also to other forms of gender discrimination in the workplace. By 1962, amid general social unrest centered on eradicating the worst abuses of racial discrimination and expanding a whole range of civil rights, the originally reluctant Kennedy administration was prepared to move forward.
Politically, the positions of the president and Congress were strengthened by vast increases in the employment of women, who accounted for one-third of the workforce in 1960, and by changes in the lives of American women. More women were divorced, and more were dependent on their own earnings to maintain themselves or their families. There also was a strong national demand for greater social justice. The fact that by the early 1960’s twenty-six states and a number of cities had passed equal pay acts reflected these popular sentiments. Legislatively, equal pay laws were no longer novelties. There was little opposition, consequently, when the equal pay bill was introduced to the House of Representatives, and scarcely any debate in the Senate. Labor unions, eager to shield male workers from lower-paid female competition, lent their support to wage equalization as a step toward job security. Employers seemed unaware of or unconcerned with what in many ways appeared to be a piece of noninterventionist legislation that, in any event, would prove difficult to apply to the distinctive conditions prevailing among millions of employers.
Certain characteristics distinguishing female employment were incontrovertible. Scores of statistical studies plotted across wide as well as discrete segments of the economy indicated that women’s earnings, on average, typically were 60 percent of men’s. The disparity was overwhelmingly clear for jobs in which women performed the same tasks and bore essentially the same responsibilities as did men. In addition, studies of the workforce confirmed that women were heavily segregated in specific and relatively low paying positions such as those in nursing, teaching, service, and secretarial fields. These facts provided the salient rationale for passage of the Equal Pay Act. What the act sought to achieve was wages for women equal to wages earned by men doing the same or similar work. A source of subsequent, vigorous, and persistent complaint for the future was that the act had nothing to declare about equal wages for women performing different work requiring equivalent skill and training, that is, engaged in work of “comparable worth.”
Pressed to passage by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the 1964 Civil Rights Act furnished the judicial testing ground for the legality of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and various forms of discrimination in employment practices and procedures as well as in the workplace itself. Federal authority to correct employment discrimination, including discrimination in regard to wages, derived chiefly from expansive judicial interpretations of the “commerce clause” of the U.S. Constitution. The wording of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act represented a comprehensive step by federal authorities toward establishing equal employment opportunity. It prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origins, and for the first time in any civil rights act it named sex as a basis on which employers could not discriminate.
As viewed by women’s rights advocates and many other civil libertarians, this represented a remarkable accomplishment. Ruth Bader Ginsburg , a distinguished attorney who joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, noted that in the past the Supreme Court had uniformly refused to alter sexually discriminatory practices. Thus women legally had been prevented from serving on juries and barred from many occupations, from law to bartending. Furthermore, despite the considerable gains made for civil liberties during the 1950’s and 1960’s, almost nothing had been achieved at the national level to equalize women’s employment opportunities. Indeed, from the 1860’s until 1971, gender discrimination was implicitly sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution.
The intent of Congress in passing the Equal Pay Act, as summarized by members of the House Subcommittee on Labor , was that men and women doing the same job under the same working conditions would receive the same pay. By the 1980’s, however, the battle for pay equity for women had been transformed into a struggle for payment to women on the basis of a difficult to define and controversial concept, that of comparable worth. Champions of pay equity believed that men and women should draw the same pay for the same work. Comparable worth advocates went further. Noting that women were segregated into certain occupations that on average paid less than occupations employing primarily men, they called for rethinking and reevaluating traditional ideas about the labor market. They pointed out that traditionally female occupations such as nurse and librarian required more education, training, skill, and responsibility than many higher-paying male-dominated jobs and objected to this inequity.
Nevertheless, observers and many detailed public and private studies confirmed that a majority of working women filled jobs in occupations that were 75 percent female and that women held 80 percent of American service jobs, traditionally low on the pay scale. Ample evidence also indicated that full-time female employees earned only about 60 percent of the wages earned by full-time male employees. Many scholarly observers and civil libertarians agreed that the working woman’s situation was in substantial part a result of sex (or gender) discrimination. However, both the national legislature and the courts have refused to undertake an overhaul of the labor market that would be required if the principle of comparable worth were to become law.
Cobble, Dorothy Sue. The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Provides a historical overview of the relationship between women’s labor activists and feminists concerning the rights of women who work outside the home. An award-winning book in labor history.
Dudley, William, ed. Social Justice: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2005. Presents a “pro versus con” format, with two essays debating the issue of “comparable worth” in employment law and theory.
Kelley, Rita Mae, and Jane Bayer, eds. Comparable Worth, Pay Equity, and Public Policy. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Superb, clear, and informative essays. A splendid survey of these subjects by a variety of experts who are balanced advocates of equity.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. A Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. A clear, useful historical survey of pay equity, with emphasis on social consequences.
Lewis, Harold S., Jr., and Elizabeth J. Norman. Employment Discrimination Law and Practice. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2004. Covers the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and related federal legislation concerned with fair employment practices and employment discrimination.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2006. Examines the legal status of women around the world. MacKinnon was instrumental in establishing sex harassment laws in the United States beginning in the mid-1970’s.