The Paternalistic Roots of U.S. Minimum-Wage Laws

The early 20th-century U.S. reformers who first made the minimum wage a woman’s issue.

On Sept. 9, a federal judge ruled that former employees of Rick's Cabaret International Inc. were entitled to the minimum wage because they were bona fide employees, not independent contractors. Rick's operates a chain of nightclubs staffed by an especially hard-working class of employees: topless dancers who were required to work eight-hour shifts in four-inch-high stiletto heels (anything shorter was forbidden by the management).

Although they may not know it, the Rick's dancers owe some of their success to early 20th-century reformers who first made the minimum wage a woman's issue. The story is as strange as the early history of the minimum wage that I related in a column last week, which concluded with the first modern minimum-wage laws in the world in Australia (by way of the Black Death, a liberal pope and some very determined Catholic reformers).

Australia's laws became the inspiration for the U.S.'s first experiment with the minimum wage in the 1910s. But something got lost in the translation. In Australia, minimum-wage legislation aimed to ensure that male workers would be paid a "living wage" -- sufficient to support themselves and their families in "reasonable and frugal comfort." The minimum wage and the living wage were one and the same, and while some labor leaders in Australia initially expressed ambivalence, they soon embraced the idea that government could set a minimum wage on behalf of working men and their families.

Things played out different in the U.S. As the historian Lawrence Glickman has documented, American labor leaders began pushing the idea of a "living wage" as early as the 1870s. In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, defined a living wage as "sufficient" to sustain a male breadwinner "and those dependent upon him in a manner to maintain his self-respect, to educate his children, supply his household with literature, with opportunities to spend a portion of his life with his family."

But when visionary reformers smitten by Australian law tried to win him over to a statutory minimum wage, Gompers wasn't interested. Writing to a reformer who advocated minimum-wage laws, Gompers warned her to "proceed with the utmost caution in any effort to establish a minimum wage by statutory law." He and his union, he wrote, "want a minimum wage," but "we want it establish by the solidarity of the workmen themselves through the economic forces of their trade unions, rather than by any legal enactment." Gompers genuinely feared that the passage of minimum-wage laws would pave the way for maximum-wage mandates that would curtail the bargaining power of unions, and reduce workers to "slavery." Many working women opposed the idea, too.

Yet it was working women, not men, who ended up targets of the first generation of minimum-wage laws. Beginning in 1912, with Massachusetts, 15 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) passed minimum-wage laws aimed exclusively at women. The impetus for these laws came not from unions, but from middle and upper-class men and women associated with Progressive Era reform organizations such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the National Consumers' League.

Their motives varied. But many of these reformers came back to a simple justification: If working women weren't paid enough, they would invariably resort to prostitution. As one reformer argued in 1913, "since the 'white slave' traffic is in no slight degree fostered by a wage scale disproportionate to the high cost of living ... a minimum wage law and legislation for the betterment of industrial conditions should precede any concerted movements to stamp out this widespread evil."

There was, another reformer warned about the same time, "a tragic relation between the low wages which women receive and the lives of shame into which many of them descend."

As the historian Rebecca Mead has documented, working-class women rejected these fears. Sarah Hagan, a union leader in San Francisco, said in 1913 that "this talk about white slavery and low wages is all stuff and nonsense ... working women haven't time to go wrong."

The San Francisco Labor Clarion sputtered that the minimum-wage advocates were slandering working women, who "have character enough to stand firm against temptation."

But these counterattacks couldn't stop the juggernaut: California passed its first female minimum-wage law in 1913. The idea that working girls and women -- many of them single -- might succumb to temptation to make ends meet was too compelling for many voters and legislators. That isn't to suggest that the reformers didn't legitimately care about the welfare of working women; many of them did. But the first generation of minimum-wage laws in the U.S. was heavily defined by the fears of working women's sexual degeneracy.

The laws wouldn't last. In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children's Hospital that the District of Columbia's minimum wage laws infringed upon the liberty of contract enshrined in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. All the minimum-wage measures passed during the Progressive Era were subsequently rolled back.

The political tide finally turned during the New Deal, when a new generation of labor reformers took up the cause of the minimum wage, building on the earlier laws, but extending their provisions to both women and men. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act enshrined a new, federal minimum wage at 25 cents an hour.

This became the basis of the 21st-century minimum wage, which covers a dizzying range of occupations: factory workers, fast-food employees, and as of this week, the hardworking strippers of Rick's Cabaret.

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