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Blog Working Women

Meet Equal Pay Pioneer Sue Cowan Williams

Years before the civil rights movement, this Arkansas teacher fought for equal pay in Little Rock schools, despite the personal cost

Alicia Ramirez

women's equal

When we talk about equal pay, we usually talk in terms of gender. On average, women make 80 cents for every dollar made by their white, male counterparts, but for most women of color even this is a far cry from reality. African-American women, on average, make 61 cents for every dollar earned by their white, male counterparts. Native American women make 58 cents, and Latinx women make 58 cents.

Read more: Today is Not My Equal Pay Day

And in 1941, a group of mostly female teachers who taught in Little Rock’s black public schools formed a committee to investigate whether they were paid in accordance with their counterparts at Little Rock’s white public schools. Unsurprisingly, the committee found they were paid substantially less than teachers at white schools and requested the school board rectify the pay gap.

When the school board refused—and subsequently widened the gap by issuing higher raises to white teachers—Sue Cowan (Morris) Williams, head of the English department at Dunbar, a black high school, was chosen to represent the teachers in a 1942 class action lawsuit against the district. After the suit was filed, the school district refused to rehire Williams for the following school years.

Read more: Meet Equal Pay Pioneer Emma Tenayuca

The suit alleged the school district consistently paid black teachers and principals less for no other reason than the color of their skin. The school district denied racial discrimination stating faculty was paid according to evaluations, not race. Federal Judge Thomas C. Trimble ruled in favor of the district two years later.

But in 1945, the original ruling was overturned by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Williams was rehired at Dunbar High School in 1952 and was promoted to her former position of chair of the English Department in 1956.

And though the court victory was limited in scope, its impact was widespread in the black community. By connecting black activists with the NAACP in Arkansas, the groundwork was laid for future civil rights movements.

This article is part of InHerSight’s month-long coverage of equal pay. Timed with Equal Pay Day, the series looks at how the pay gap affects women of all backgrounds and in all industries.

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