American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law, 1963. Image courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
What is the Equal Pay Act?
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 is a federal law that requires men and women be paid equally for equal work in the same establishment.
The Equal Pay Act isn’t the only federal law that protects workers from pay discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also protect employees in this way. But it’s the Equal Pay Act that uniquely addresses the intersection of sex and compensation.
And “pay,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is more than just your salary or hourly wage. It also includes “overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, cleaning or gasoline allowances, hotel accommodations, reimbursement for travel expenses, and benefits.”
The history of the Equal Pay Act
The first attempt at federal legislation specifically prohibiting pay discrimination on the basis of sex was made in 1944 by Winifred C. Stanley, a Republican congresswomen from New York, in the form of a proposed amendment to the National Fair Labor Standards Act. Introducing the bill in the midst of WWII, Stanley said, “It has often been remarked that this is a ‘man’s world.’ The war and its far-reaching effects have provided the answer. It’s ‘our world,’ and this battered old universe needs and will need the best brains and ability of both men and women.” The bill stalled in the Committee on Labor and expired before it was made law.
When Stanley introduced her bill in June of 1944, wage discrimination was far more blatant than it is today. When men were deployed to the war effort, women had been hired to fill their jobs at a fraction of the cost. And it was perfectly legal to do so at the time. When the men returned, the women who held their jobs were often let go and then men rehired at their old salaries. Some employers who hadn’t previously would hire women after WWII, but would advertise a job opening with a men’s pay scale and a women’s pay scale. You can guess which one was lower.
In the 1950s, several more attempts at a federal law were made, but none were successful. It wasn’t until 1961, when Esther Peterson was appointed head of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor under President Kennedy, that the cause was helmed by a woman with the resolve and diplomacy to make it happen.
In February 1963, Peterson submitted a draft of the bill to Congress, and in June of that year—after much deliberation, many edits, and a din of juvenile protest from men who argued that it was unnecessary, would create more problems than it would solve, and was impossible to enforce—the Equal Pay Act was signed into law as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act.
So, that was it for gender pay discrimination, right?
Oh, if only. A law cannot and does not dispose of cultural prejudice, it doesn’t even phase it out. Wage discrimination on the basis of gender happened in 1963, and it still happens today. Women are still paid less than men are in the United States—82 cents for every dollar a man is paid, and even less when you parse that data by race, age, and disability.
But the problem is that the Equal Pay Act cannot and does not close the gender pay gap entirely because that gap exists for a host of reasons in addition to outright discrimination: occupational sorting, the lack of federally mandated paid parental leave in the United States, and unequal distribution of household duties, just to scrape the surface of that very deep bucket of tar.
The Equal Pay Act is historic and necessary, but it is not a silver bullet.