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

8

Legislating equal wages

The fight for equal pay, i.e. “the rate for the job without regard to sex” lacks the glamour of the battles waged in the United States by the feminists earlier in the century which finally won women the vote. No “equal pay” parade has yet taken place. No newspaper has reported a single brick thrown through a window, nor the name of one woman worker willingly dragged off for a night in prison to dramatize the economic injustice to women.

(Women's Bureau 1952:1)

The principle of equal pay for equal work, legitimated by the National War Labor Board and institutionalized through job evaluation in industry, gained acceptance after World War II. However, adopting the principle of equal wages and passing legislation mandating equal wages were different matters. Further, the version of equal pay endorsed by the National War Labor Board (NWLB) and employer associations was not what many advocates had wished for. It was only a very narrow conception of equal pay - for virtually identical work - not equal pay for comparable work. Job evaluation methods effected in the decades surrounding World War II reproduced unequal pay for work of equal value.

As a result, wage gaps were maintained, or even widened, between traditionally “women's work” and “men's work.” Women's wages remained below men's, even when comparable work was performed by both sexes (Women's Bureau 1952, 1963). Although differences between men's and women's wages within detailed occupational categories were small relative to the gap between men's occupations and women's occupations (Sanborn 1964), even the more limited definition of equal pay for equal work was not enforced.

In a study of the Board's decisions for a Master's thesis at American University, Ella Joan Polinsky commented that the NWLB was shy about overtly ordering equal pay for men's and women's jobs. The Board's reticence had an impact on the way equal pay was implemented:

In summary, it may be said that while the equal-pay principle has been

-143-

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