Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, giving us the opportunity to look back on what it took to get that landmark law in place, and what it will take to finish the unfinished business of achieving fair pay. 

Efforts to end the practice of paying women less than men for work in the same job have been underway for a very long time — well over a hundred years, in fact. The 41st Congress passed an appropriations bill in 1870 — 1870! — that prohibited gender pay discrimination in federal jobs. Unfortunately, by the time it got to the Senate, it was severely watered down and only applied to new employees. Enforcement of this bill was virtually non-existent. 

Even back then, the injustice of paying women less than men for work in the same job had support amongst women’s rights advocates and even some mainstream press outlets. For example, in 1891 the Washington Post optimistically declared, “The working world is rapidly coming to apprehend the justice of giving equal remuneration to women who do as much and as good work as men.” 

New York state was a leader in the fight for fair pay, passing the Grady bill in 1891 which required equal pay for New York City teachers. On signing the bill the Governor declared, “I believe in the principle of pay for position, or equal salary for equal work.” Throughout the late 1890s, advocates in New York tried to use the power of public opinion to curb the practice of unfair pay and other forms of unfair treatment toward female employees by publishing a “White List” of stores to avoid because of their mistreatment of women. 

The World Wars ushered in a new wave of equal pay fervor for the federal government. With the men off fighting, much of the labor fell to women. Consequently, in 1918 and in 1942, the National War Labor Board required employers to pay men and women the same wages. 

Equal pay legislation that would apply to the private sector workforce was introduced in 1945 with the Equal Pay Bill of 1945. Then-Secretary of Labor Schwellenbach spoke out in support of the bill, saying, “I see no basis for making a distinction between men and women workers in this connection. If they turn out the same quantity and quality of work, they should receive the same compensation.” 

In spite of the new gains in popular support for fair pay, including equal pay being adopted by both the 1952 Democratic and Republican National Conventions campaign platforms, the bills that were introduced continued to fail in Congress. 

The big break finally came in the 1963. The combination of activism from the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and the President’s Commission on the Status of Women helped push the plight of women workers into the spotlight. After long and spirited debates in Congress, naysayers were defeated and the bill passed. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, remarking: 

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…. I am grateful to those Members of Congress who worked so diligently to guide the Equal Pay Act through. It is a first step. It affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes.
– President Kennedy, upon signing the Equal Pay Act 

Activists today are continuing the fight for fair pay, both inside and outside the legislature, through their efforts to finally remove the barriers to equal pay. For example, activists like Ai-jen Poo helped pass New York’s landmark Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, helping domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, gain basic fair labor rights, such as overtime and minimum wages. And women like Lilly Ledbetter and AnnMarie Duchon continue to inspire women to fight back against pay discrimination. 

We have come a long way since the first legislation requiring equal pay for equal work was introduced over 140 years ago, but we have yet to achieve full equality — the wage gap has been stuck at 77 cents for the past decade. We need to continue to fight against unfair pay by putting policies in place — like the Paycheck Fairness Act — that would give women the tools they need to fight back against pay discrimination and deter employers from discriminating in the first place.