A Pioneer’s Unfinished Struggle to Give Women Equal Pay

April 10 (Bloomberg) -- Most Americans know that for every dollar a man earns, a woman doing the same job still makes significantly less. As a reminder, Equal Pay Day is commemorated every year on a Tuesday in April. The date -- this year it was April 9 -- is selected to illustrate how long into the current year a woman must work to match what a man earned the previous year.

Few Americans are aware, however, that there is a Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Labor Department devoted to such issues. Nor do they realize that it played a crucial role in enacting the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage discrimination on the basis of sex. The law reflected years of work and commitment by one woman in particular: Esther Peterson.

Peterson might have seemed an unlikely reformer. Born to a Mormon family in Provo, Utah, she once recalled that she was raised to believe that striking workers “had bombs in their pockets and were communists.” It was only after she finished college and moved east that she became more sensitive to workers’ needs -- especially those of female workers. During the 1930s, while teaching night-school classes to garment workers, she witnessed women’s struggles as they tried to make ends meet.

Kennedy Administration

Peterson’s interest in labor’s concerns grew, and by 1957 she was the first female lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. By then, she had worked with John F. Kennedy on labor issues while he served in Congress. After he was elected president, he chose Peterson to head the Women’s Bureau and serve as an assistant secretary of labor.

With her new titles and her connection to the president, Peterson was determined to help women receive equal pay for equal work. The postwar era brought dramatic changes in workplace demographics, as more married women with children entered the labor pool. Most held traditional “women’s jobs,” such as nurses, teachers or clerks. And when women had the same kinds of jobs as men, they often faced wage discrimination. Some states had laws barring the practice, but Peterson wanted federal protection.

Dwight Eisenhower’s administration had supported such legislation but faced opposition from key members of Congress. During his time as a lawmaker, Kennedy had paid lip service to the idea, though he never took any forceful action to support it. When new equal-pay legislation was proposed in 1961, Kennedy allowed Peterson and her staff to spearhead the effort.

In 1962, a bill passed the House, to the consternation of the business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was able to derail the measure in the Senate for a time, but ultimately the upper house also passed a version of the legislation. Still, the delaying tactics led to procedural blocks that prevented the bill from reaching the president for his signature into law. Peterson wasn’t deterred. She and her staff began drawing up a new bill. This time, the obstacles weren’t just business interests and the lawmakers sympathetic to them, but also union leaders and Kennedy advisers. Peterson later described “undercover lobbying” against the law by some unions.

And for a time, members of the White House Council of Economic Advisers suggested there was no need for the law; Peterson showed them otherwise. Then, Labor Secretary William Willard Wirtz said the law would cost too much to enforce. In her book, “On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues 1945-1968,” Cynthia Harrison reports Peterson’s response: “It does not seem unreasonable to spend approximately the same amount of money the government now spends on paper clips and stapling machines in order to protect 24 million women members of the labor force.”

Seniority Exemption

Peterson won her case with the administration, and on Valentine’s Day 1963, she took the equal-pay proposal to the Capitol, where it was introduced in both houses. Over the next two months, business groups spoke out against the bill. Even so, after some wrangling over a few provisions, the Equal Pay Act was passed in May and signed into law in June. While it guaranteed equal pay for equal work, it also allowed some exceptions for pay differences, including seniority or merit.

Peterson saw her and her bureau’s work as an important first step in achieving equality for women. “We’re not in the basement anymore,” she said. But in a letter to the New York Times she lamented that many Americans, and particularly the news media, still failed to “treat the plight of the woman worker with the seriousness it deserves.” At the time, women were paid 60 cents for every dollar that men earned.

Today, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men - - it’s even lower for minority women -- making Peterson’s plea as relevant as it was almost a half-century ago.

(Michael Burgan is a freelance writer and editor of the Biographer’s Craft, the newsletter for Biographers International Organization. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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