Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage

By Vivien Hart | Go to book overview

SIX
Gender Trap
PROTECTION VERSUS EQUALITY, U.S.A., 1921–1923

THE 1920s were critical years for the development of minimum wage policy in the United States. The decade embraced two distinct periods, the turning point in 1923marked by the Supreme Court's veto of the District of Columbia minimum wage law in April and the introduction of an Equal Rights Amendment in Congress for the first time in December. Both the tone and the substance of the minimum wage campaign differed before and after 1923. The confidence of the first period was replaced by defensiveness and demoralization in the second, the leadership of female reformers by that of male lawyers. The issue at the heart of debate before 1920 was gender at work. After 1923, it was the constitutional doctrine of due process, with gender marginalized.

The twenties were years of setbacks for the minimum wage. Differences of opinion sharpened, and legislation was nullified, underfunded, or unenforced. In 1919, laws were in place in fourteen states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. But 1919 saw the first repeal, in Nebraska. In the next decade, South Dakota passed a bill and Wisconsin revised its legislation, but two more laws were repealed and the courts struck down seven. After 1923, the failure of the test case in the Supreme Court, Adkins v. Children's Hospital of Washington, D.C., left minimum wage law in limbo. Minimum wage commissions were emasculated by the fear of court cases, by budget cuts, and by loss of support. 1

In 1920, however, optimism reigned. Florence Kelley's notes for a Thanksgiving speech were appropriately cheerful: “Wage determinations have multiplied manifold, and their beneficial effect can now be convincingly demonstrated.” The future held promise: “Every year in January more than forty legislatures meet. Then the men and women work overtime who strive to carry forward, by the orderly processes of the law, new social and industrial changes. They are now drafting bills for introduction in January 1921. Their effort will be directed anew to the creation of minimum wage commissions in adjacent states over large areas.” As progress was consolidated, Kelley looked forward to the final validation, “an original affirmative decision by the United States Supreme Court.” 2 She knew that a test case from the District of Columbia was in the pipeline. Three years later, the minimum wage campaign had, in Adkins, its original decision by the Supreme Court. Kelley was bitter: “The minimum wage law of the District of Columbia has been held unconstitutional, and several thousand women have been assured of their constitutional right to starve, in the capital of our country.” 3

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