State-level minimum wage laws for women and the federal minimum wage statute resulted from efforts to guarantee living wages for marginalized groups of workers. Adherence to living wages was, and continues to be, one of two important wage-setting principles that have inspired social movements and public policy. The second principle is equal wages. In the next two chapters, we trace how equal wages became a social norm and the basis for federal policy.
Advocates for working women began the twentieth century relatively alone in carrying the banner for equal wages. Equal pay principles conflicted with wage-setting practices that instituted separate scales for male and female workers even when they worked in similar positions. To effect equal pay, the Women's Bureau openly supported wages based on job content, asserting: “A correct or suitable rate for a job can be established only by an analysis of the specific requirements of the job” (Women's Bureau 1942:22). As the rhetoric of paying the job rather than the worker became managerial policy, the slogan of working women's advocates - equal pay for equal work - became codified as a personnel practice.
A critical aspect of this process was the adoption of job evaluation by large employers during the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. Job evaluation was both a wage-setting technique and an ideology about the proper basis for establishing pay relativities. As a wage-setting technique, job evaluation, like public policy, reveals the implicit wage theories of the economic actors who proposed and shaped its practice. As an ideology, job evaluation promoted a criterion of paying for job content rather than the individual traits of a worker. This criterion was a variation on the concept of wages as a price, grounded less in the fluctuations of supply and demand than in productivity theory. A specific job generated value for the employer, regardless of the occupant. This form of wages as a price discourse overtook a living wage discourse that focused on workers' needs.
Nevertheless, the definition of equal pay for equal work with respect to gender was subject to interpretation. As equal pay became an accepted principle, the meaning of equal work was contested, specifically before the National War Labor Board during World War II and in the mass-marketing