50 Years after the Equal Pay Act, Parity Eludes Us

March 18, 2013
AAUW members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963.

AAUW members Minnie Miles (front row, fourth from right) and Reps. Edith Green (left of president, in white suit), Martha Griffiths (second from right), and Julia Hansen (far right) with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963. CREDIT: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

By Beth Pearsall
Freelance Writer
San Diego, California

Surrounded by top women leaders, including several AAUW members, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963. The act made it illegal for employers to pay women and men differently for the same work.

The president called the landmark legislation a “significant step forward” to ensuring that women who enter the labor force find equality in their paychecks. He also acknowledged the long journey many organizations had undertaken to call attention to the “unconscionable practice” of paying female employees less than male employees for the same job.1

For AAUW, the pay equity fight began nearly 70 years earlier. In 1894, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae — as AAUW was then known — collaborated with the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor to analyze the pay of college-educated women. The resulting report included firsthand accounts of women’s work experiences at the time. As one woman reported, “When I was doing office work, I received $6 a week and kept the books and was a [typist] too. If a man had been employed for this work, his pay would have been $15 a week, and he would not have been required to perform the general office work. He would have been a professional bookkeeper, however, which I was not.”2

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, which requires employers to give women and men equal pay for equal work. At that time, women were paid 59 cents for every dollar men were paid. In 2015, that figure is 79 cents. Although we have made significant strides since 1963, true parity continues to elude us.

Through the years, AAUW continued conducting groundbreaking research on pay equity. In the 1920s, AAUW examined the earning capacity of college-educated women. In 1938, AAUW published a report that documented widespread sex discrimination in academia and served as the basis for a campaign to improve employment standards for women on campus.

After World War II, equal pay bills were introduced — some by AAUW members — in every session of Congress. In 1945, AAUW endorsed the first federal equal pay legislation, the Women’s Equal Pay Bill, which was introduced by Sens. Claude Pepper (DFL) and Wayne Morse (R-OR) and Rep. Chase Going Woodhouse (D-CT), an AAUW member and former chair of AAUW’s Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women. AAUW also supported the Green-Rogers Bill, introduced in 1955 by Rep. Edith Green (D-OR), who was an AAUW member, and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-MA). In his 1956 State of the Union address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for the bill’s passage as “a matter of simple justice.”3

Melissa Harris-Perry on the front cover of Outlook Magazine smiling.

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This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine.

But despite these efforts and AAUW’s leadership in the National Committee for Equal Pay (members Louella Berg, Frances Jalet, and Lorraine Torres all served as chairs), it wasn’t until 1963 — in the 88th Congress — that a pay equity bill finally passed both the House and the Senate and became the law of the land. Kennedy called the Equal Pay Act a “first step” and noted that “much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity.”4

Unfortunately, 50 years later, much work still remains to be done — the protections of the Equal Pay Act and even 2009’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act simply aren’t enough to ensure equal pay for women. The protections under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provide a bit more teeth, but a 1980s revision weakened the law by undercutting necessary deterrents. The Ledbetter Act, while critical, reversed a bad Supreme Court precedent and only allowed us to maintain the status quo.

AAUW’s latest research report, Graduating to a Pay Gap, found that just one year out of college, women are paid, on average, 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers. The report further shows that women are paid 7 percent less than men even when they work in the same job, major in the same field, and work the same number of hours per week. By some estimates, women could lose up to $1 million over a 40-year career because of the pay gap.


Setbacks on the Road to Pay Equity

Pay equity was launched into the national spotlight in 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its now infamous decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. In a contentious split decision, the court ruled that employers cannot be held accountable for discrimination 180 days after the first discriminatory paycheck was issued (never mind how many more unfair paychecks followed) — reversing 40 years of legal precedent and leaving women, minorities, and others facing pay discrimination with virtually no recourse.

Plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter continued her fight, however, in the hopes that other women would not face the same inequities she did. Her efforts — with the tireless support of AAUW and other women’s groups — culminated in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2009. The law extended the 180-day statute of limitations for employees to contest pay discrimination.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter closed people’s access to the courts,” explains Lisa Maatz, AAUW director of public policy and government relations. “The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reopened courthouse doors for people facing civil rights violations — just like the courts had been for 40 years.”


What the Equal Pay Act Doesn’t Do

But while the Ledbetter Act is a significant victory, formidable hurdles remain in the fight for pay equity.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has the potential to close loopholes that have kept the Equal Pay Act of 1963 from fully protecting and advancing pay equality. Among other things, the Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to show that pay disparity is truly related to job performance and requirements, not gender. It would also strengthen remedies for pay discrimination and prohibit retaliation against workers who disclose their wages to co-workers.

“It’s not uncommon for civil rights legislation to take years to finally get passed; the Family and Medical Leave Act took 15 years.”

Passed by the House in January 2009 with a bipartisan majority, the Paycheck Fairness Act was defeated in the Senate on a procedural vote in November 2010. The bill was reintroduced on April 12, 2011, but in 2012 was voted down in the House and defeated on a procedural vote in the Senate. The bill was reintroduced in January 2013 in both chambers of the new Congress.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act has been around for about 15 years, and we have come very close to passing it on several occasions,” says Maatz. “It’s not uncommon for civil rights legislation to take years to finally get passed; the Family and Medical Leave Act took 15 years.”

Maatz adds, “AAUW is persistently patient about legislation because we have seen over the past 131 years that we can make change happen — even if it’s slower than we’d like.”

But the Paycheck Fairness Act is not the end of the road: “There are other things we need to address. We need to remove the bias toward traditionally female jobs so we value the skills involved and pay women what they deserve.”

“There is always a new frontier in the fight for pay equity,” Maatz says, “and AAUW will continue to be on the front lines until women everywhere earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s


1. Kennedy, John F. Remarks upon signing the Equal Pay Act, June 10, 1963. Cited in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American presidency project. www.presidency. ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9267.
2. Association of Collegiate Alumnae. (1896). Compensation in certain occupations of women who have received college or other special training.
3. Eisenhower, Dwight D. State of the Union address, January 5, 1956. www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/poldocs/uspressu/SUaddressDEisenhower.
4. Kennedy, John F. Remarks upon signing the Equal Pay Act, June 10, 1963. Cited in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American presidency project. www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9267.



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