Another Equal Pay Anniversary This Week

June 11, 2009

While looking for information on floor proceedings on the Clerk of the House website (we were following the House debate over the Office for Global Women’s Issues that is included in the State Department reauthorization bill), I came across this story. (My favorite line is in bold.) During this week of pay equity anniversaries, it’s another reminder of how pay discrimination has persisted and how far we still have to go.

June 11, 1870

On this date, the House narrowly passed an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibiting gender discrimination in the compensation of clerks hired by the federal government. Under the prior law, female clerks earned less than half the salary of similarly employed men. The bill’s final passage (78 to 74, with 78 Members abstaining) reflected the contentious debate surrounding the measure. In February, Samuel Arnell of Tennessee first suggested that female clerks be paid an equal wage; the House rejected his and similar amendments amidst sarcastic barbs and jeers. Representative Anthony Rogers of Arkansas objected to “these ladies running about the streets and lobbying with members,” predicting that “the upshot of it…will finally place the whole administration of Government under female management.” Representative John Farnsworth of Illinois countered “that it is unworthy the manhood of this House and the spirit of the age” to pay women lower wages. Other Members noted that many working women were Civil War widows whose wages were their only means of support. The Senate eventually amended the bill to include an equal pay clause. When the measure returned to the House, the Appropriations Committee adopted the Senate amendment; however, the committee effectively weakened it by adding language promising the equal wages only to future employees and by freezing the number of clerkships on the payroll. The compromise lured support from Members originally concerned about the additional cost of the pay raises, tipping the scale in the close vote. Supporters were optimistic about the amendment’s future effect. “What we call civilization from age to age has brought to man wider freedom, yet little relaxed the iron subjugation of women,” Arnell intoned. “I see in the removal of this disability immediate reform in our social life.”

Three women at work at the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D.C., ca. 1920.  Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Three women at work at the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D.C., ca. 1920. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

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