Living Wages, Equal Wages: Gender and Labor Market Policies in the United States

By Deborah M. Figart; Ellen Mutari et al. | Go to book overview
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6

A living for breadwinners

The federal minimum wage

The devastating onslaught of the Great Depression, rising political pressure against laissez-faire economic doctrines, and the experimental policy approach of newly elected Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the climate and context for wage regulations. Wage and hour laws, the hallmarks of protective legislation for women and children during the Progressive Era, became national, gender-neutral regulations in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. In fact, during Congressional testimony on the proposed legislation, William Green, President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) asserted

The act is not a minimum wage law for women and minors. It is designed to establish minimum wage standards under very limited and special circumstances for workers engaged in the private industries covered by the act - men as well as women.

(U.S. Congress 1937:219)

The enactment of federal wage and hour legislation during the New Deal was significant on many levels. It was an accomplishment for networks of social reformers who succeeded in institutionalizing their policy program. The New Deal welfare state was a direct outgrowth of female-led organizations, such as settlement houses and the National Consumers' League, created to ameliorate the sweatshop conditions of factory labor in urban areas. The first drafts of the U.S. welfare state were written at the state level early in the twentieth century, as reformers moved from providing social services for the poor to demanding state intervention in economic affairs. The drafts became text during the Depression, as the Supreme Court legitimated the welfare state and Congress passed legislation that reshaped the political economy.

For fifteen years following its 1923 decision in Adkins v. Children's Hospital nullifying the District of Columbia's minimum wage law, the Supreme Court remained a primary obstacle to passage of wage regulations. A minimum wage, especially one that covered male employees, also threatened the comparative advantage of southern industry seeking to attract business investment, the labor systems of low-wage agricultural employers in the

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