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on Pay Equity
Pay Equity

The struggle for pay equity is part of America's evolving sense of what is fair and just. After all, slavery was once an accepted part of this democratic nation; union demands were an illegal restraint of trade; married women had no property rights; women workers had no right to their earnings; child labor was common; unequal pay for women was an accepted practice. Society took no notice when job rates dropped as women, instead of men, were hired to do them (librarians and secretaries, for example).

Today, most Americans support equal pay for work of comparable (not merely identical) value. It is past time to ensure it is achieved.



1932 - Federal Economic Act passes to ban wives of federal employees from holding government positions. It also declares that women with employed husbands be first on the lists for firing.

1935 - National Recovery Act requires women who hold jobs with the government to receive 25 percent less pay than men in the same jobs.

1942 - War Labor Board rules women must be paid same job rate as men (now off to war) were paid. War ends before rule can be enforced. No law requires either pay equity or equal pay.

1950's - Equal pay bills are introduced by Sen. Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Rep. Edith Green (D-OR); Republican versions by New York Reps. Katherine St. George and Jessica Weis. No results.

1961 - Labor activist Esther Peterson heads Women's Bureau, gains responsibility for pushing legislation, gathers data, builds coalitions, wins allies. Equal Pay bill is introduced. Original bill includes comparable worth, stronger enforcement; final bill does not.

1963 - Equal Pay Act passes providing equal pay for women for equal work.

1964 - Civil Rights Bill passes. Title VII bans employment discrimination against women.

1974 - International Union of Electronic, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers sues Westinghouse. The company had set up a wage rate structure in the 1930's; scores for women's jobs were automatically reduced merely because they were performed by women, not an unusual attitude then.

1979 - 20 women's groups, professional organizations and unions form the National Committee on Pay Equity. Founders include unions such as IUE, AFSCME, SEIU, UAW, NTEU, women's groups such as Business and Professional Women, NOW, Women's Legal Defense Fund, League of Women Voters, National Commission on Working Women, NARAL, Coalition of Labor Union Women, National Association of Office Workers, National Commission on Working Women, professional groups such as the American Library Association and the George Meany Center. Now there is an organization to educate, lobby and build coalitions on pay equity. The EEOC, chaired by Eleanor Holmes-Norton, studies pay in female-dominated occupations.


The 1981 Supreme Court decision (Gunther) rules Title VII covers wage discrimination even if jobs are different. Action on the state and local level heats up. Unions make pay equity gains on picket lines, at bargaining tables, in state legislatures, and in the courts. Government and think-tank studies show continuing wage gap. Pay equity bills, primarily relating to Federal workers, win in the House (with bipartisan support) but lose in the Senate. By the end of the 1980's, despite growing public support for pay equity, a more conservative Supreme Court and unfriendly administrations have put up roadblocks to progress.


1981 - In County of Washington (Oregon) v. Gunther, the Supreme Court rules that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies even if jobs are different. Prison matrons earned only 70 percent of what male prison guards were paid, though their jobs scored almost the same job evaluation points. This landmark victory brought them up to 95 percent of what male guards earned.

1981 - The 1974 IUE suit against Westinghouse is settled right after the Gunther decision. IUE negotiates new contract providing upgrades of 85 predominantly female job categories, backpay, and wage increases.

1981 - San Jose (CA) city workers are first workers to strike for pay equity. Their victory brings $1.5 million in pay equity adjustments (and more in succeeding contracts).

1982 - Minnesota passes first pay equity law for public workers. Health care and clerical workers are major groups affected; 90 percent of those getting pay boosts are women. Examples: clerk typist 2 now paid same as delivery van driver; nurse now paid same as vocational education teacher. Cost to state: only 3.7 percent of state payroll.

1983 - Newspaper Guild bargaining in Manchester, NH wins upgrades in female advertising jobs. AFSCME in New York files "911" suit -- argues that 911 police emergency operators (female) deserve same pay as fire dispatchers (male). Bills to study pay equity in Federal employment are introduced in Congress. State of Washington found liable for discriminatory wage rates.

1984 - Advocates battle attack on pay equity by Clarence Pendleton, Chair, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who calls pay equity "the looniest idea since Looney Tunes." Yale clerical and technical workers (HERE) win first major strike in private sector over pay equity. Federal workers pay equity bill passes House 413-6 but loses in Senate 51-47. 20 states conduct pay equity surveys; 4 make pay equity adjustments.

1985 - Los Angeles negotiates $12 million pay equity pay adjustment with AFSCME. Newspaper Guild bargaining in Eugene, OR narrows wage gap in advertising jobs. AFSCME and state of Washington agree on $100 million pay equity adjustment. EEOC Chair Clarence Thomas says comparable worth was not worthy of consideration in discrimination complaints. Again, Federal workers pay equity bill passes House 259-162; stalls in Senate.

1986-1987 - Ontario (Canada) first jurisdiction in world to pass pay equity law for both public and private sectors. Pay equity (sex and race) bills for Federal employees introduced in Congress.

1988-1989 - Pay Equity for Federal workers passes House 302-98. National Committee on Pay Equity celebrates its 10th Anniversary, now has 120 organizational members. 24 states have pay equity studies, 20 states have made some pay adjustments. San Francisco completes March 1987 pay equity adjustment agreement made with SEIU and other unions after nine years of struggle.



1990-1991 - In 1991, AFSCME (New York) wins $1 million in back pay for more than 1,000 female 911 operators in case originating in 1983. Principal medical technologists close $4,000 gap with principal analytical chemists in Detroit in 1991. Hofstra University (Long Island, NY) completes pay equity adjustments begun after 1989 strike.

1992-1993 - 911 operators in Detroit win pay equity in 1993. 30th Anniversary of Equal Pay Act is celebrated. Wage gap between men and women is still 30 percent. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich expresses concern about lack of pay equity.

1994-1995 - July 20, 1994, FAIR PAY ACT OF 1994 introduced in Congress by Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) calling for employers to pay fairly for equivalent jobs. April 7, 1995, Fair Pay Act of 1995 re-introduced into Congress. Thousands of women sign National Petition for Fair Pay, coordinated by National Committee on Pay Equity.

1996-1997 - March 28, 1996, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduces the Fair Pay Act into the Senate. April 11, 1996, President Bill Clinton declares the first annual "National Pay Inequity Awareness Day" and urges employers to ensure fair pay policies. September 20, 1996, NCPE testifies before a joint House and Senate Democratic Caucus Forum on the Families First Agenda which prominently features fair pay issues. January 21, 1997, Senator Tom Daschle introduces the Paycheck Fairness Act to enhance resources and enforcement of the Equal Pay Act. January 30, 1997, Senator Tom Harkin re-introduces the Fair Pay Act in the Senate; Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes-Norton re-introduces the House version on April 10, 1997. April 11, 1997, hundreds of women commemorate National Pay Inequity Awareness Day with nationwide rallies, state and local proclamations, and educational workshops about the wage gap. June 24, 1997, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduces the Paycheck Fairness Act in the House. On July 22, 1997, Council 26 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) files a class action lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and a claim under the Equal Pay Act on behalf of women custodians employed by the Architect of the U.S. Capitol. The suit charges that the women are paid significantly less than their male co-workers for performing essentially the same work.

1998 - Six hundred local women's groups, labor unions, and others across the country commemorate Equal Pay Day on April 3 by holding rallies, press conferences, and luncheons; organizing discounts at local restaurants; handing out cookies reduced in size to reflect the wage gap to local elected officials; handing out "Equal" Pay Day candy bars; marching to their state capitols; and more. In conjunction with Equal Pay Day, Vice President Gore announces new policy initiatives aimed a closing the wage gap and pledges the Administration's support for the Paycheck Fairness Act. On June 10, 1998 -- the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act -- President Clinton holds a press conference at the White House and urges Members of Congress to pass legislation to close the wage gap, saying, "You wouldn't tolerate getting to vote in three out of every four elections. You wouldn't like it if someone said you could only pick up three out of every four paychecks. But that is, in effect, what we have said to the women of America." Also speaking at this event are Dr. Dorothy Height, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Gore, Tipper Gore, and several Members of Congress.

In May of 1998, 115 clerical workers in the Sachem School District in New York -- also known as the Sachem Suffragettes -- celebrate their new contract, which includes the first steps to achieving pay equity with custodial workers. The suffragettes, members of the United Public Service Employees union, had waged a ten year fight for pay equity that culminated in passage of legislation in the New York State Assembly guaranteeing pay equity protection for every woman in New York.

1999 - On January 19, 1999, President Clinton mentions equal pay among his priorities outlined in his annual State of the Union Address before Congress and the nation. As the New York Times reports the next morning, "Mr. Clinton exuded ease and a sense of political control, reacting with unmistakable delight when both sides of the chamber erupted in applause for his call for equal pay for equal work by women or men." The following week, on January 30, 1999, the President dedicates his weekly radio address to the issue of fair pay, proposing a $14 million initiative to help narrow the wage gap.

On April 7, 1999, President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman host a roundtable discussion on equal pay at the White House. A scientist, a clerk, a coach and a nurse all share their personal stories with wage discrimination in America. On April 8, 1999, tens of thousands of women mobilize nationwide for Equal Pay Day.

This paper written for NCPE by Connie Kopelov, June 1994; updated, April 1997; updated March 1998; updated August, 1999.