Two principles have laid the foundation for efforts to regulate wages during the twentieth century. First, relying upon the wage theories described in Chapter 3, social reformers have contended that employers and the state are obligated to ensure some minimal standard of living to all citizens who participate in waged labor. Not surprisingly, the definition of what constitutes a living, especially whether it incorporates self-sufficiency and/or the ability to support dependents, has varied according to time, location, and the gender, class, and race-ethnicity of the citizen-worker. Second, these activists have disputed gender and racial-ethnic hierarchies by asserting a principle of equal wages. Drawing upon both living and price constructs, equal wages have been interpreted to mean that appropriate living standards should not reflect gender and racial bias and that equally productive workers should receive comparable compensation. Social movements, dating to the earliest days of the century, have attempted to institutionalize the two broad principles of living wages and equal wages in wage-setting practices.
The period from roughly 1900 to 1920 in the United States is commonly referred to as the Progressive Era. It was a time of sharp change, with rapid growth and concentration of industry, mass immigration, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, and increased urbanization. These factors, along with the misery wrought by a nationwide economic depression in 1893, led to the development of a political reform movement focused on curbing the power of large corporations and improving the conditions of workers. Progressive reformers advocated factory safety and inspection laws and protective legislation such as maximum hours and minimum wages. This legislation was frequently gender-specific, that is, applied to women (and children) but not adult men. Therefore, the debate surrounding it often reflected explicit beliefs about the appropriate economic roles of men and women.
This chapter will focus on one particular aspect of legislation to protect women workers: the creation and demise of gender-specific minimum wages in a number of states during the Progressive Era. Efforts to pass state-level minimum wage laws and discussions about the appropriate level for a minimum once legislation was passed provide clear examples of how wages