50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act: No News is Bad News

By Robin Jones Kerr, Communications Intern

On this day in 1963, fifty years ago exactly, President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act. It was the first national law prohibiting pay discrimination on the basis of gender. Women at the time made, on average, 59 cents for every dollar made by men; fifty years later, we have closed this gap in wages by 18 cents: women, on average, make 77 cents of every dollar that a man makes.

The list of statistics goes on. The gap widens for women of color, as it does for mothers compared to fathers. The gap exists. It’s real. Its ramifications and consequences are far-reaching, and what’s most upsetting is that the gap isn’t going anywhere. It’s thinned in the past 50 years, but that is by no means what JFK had in mind when he signed the act in an effort to end what he called the “unconscionable practice” of paying women less than men for the same work.

Passage of the Equal Pay Act was a long, hard road. The first ever study that described the pay inequity between men and women was conducted in 1894 by the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, a precursor to the American Association of University Women. This study found that men earned twice what women earned. Over the following decades, research about the pay gap mounted but no action was taken. During World War II, women entered the workforce en masse. At this point this issue of pay equity gained momentum and General Order 16 — which declared that men and women working the same job should earn the same wage — was issued.

That was 1942. Three years later, the first equal pay bill was introduced to Congress, and was blocked by Senate leaders every year for the next 18 years until it was passed in 1963. Keeping up?

Here’s where the parallels between the Equal Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act really begins. The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), while not perfect, is a proposed bill that would close some loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, by establishing powerful deterrents against unequal pay. PFA has been introduced to the past eight Congresses and the fight has spanned 16 years (almost my entire lifetime). Just two more years and we’ll match the amount of time it took the Equal Pay Act to be passed.

It is mind-blowing to me that there has been so little speed in achieving equal pay. Think about and compare the two time periods: 1945 to 1963 and 1997 to 2013. One would assume–hope, even–that more advancements for women would be made in the second period than the first, and yet we’re falling short.

The Paycheck Fairness Act isn’t perfect. The Equal Pay Act wasn’t either, hence the need for the Paycheck Fairness Act. But it’s been 50 years, 50 long years that women are supposed to have been paid the same amount as their male counterparts and haven’t been. It’s a damn shame that there exist people, legislators, leaders of our country, who oppose one of the most basic facets of gender equality. I’m disappointed that the story I’m writing to commemorate this event could have easily been published at any point in the last five decades, because so little is new in the fight for pay equity.

Happy Anniversary, Equal Pay Act — I’m sorry we’ve let you down.

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