History, History Column

Equal Pay Day – Let’s Celebrate???

by ©2019 Sarah Becker

Copyright © 2019 Sarah Becker

Equal Pay Day – Let’s Celebrate???

April 2 is Equal Pay Day.  Wanna celebrate?  According to the American Association of University Women’s 2018 annual report, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap, Virginia ranks 29th in gender equality.  The Commonwealth’s Equal Pay laws are “weak,” and the pay gap is “real.”  Virginia women “are paid 79 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to a man.”

“While the nation’s unemployment rate is down, and the number of women working is up, the wage gap is sadly remaining stagnant,” AAUW Chief Executive Officer Kim Churches said.  “It’s unacceptable.”  The Equal Pay Act became law in 1963; the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.


In the United States, in 2017, median annual earnings for full-time workers were $41,977 for women, $52,146 for men.  “If the pay gap narrows at the same rate of change since 2001, it will not close until 2106,” the AAUW explained.  Female pay ratios by occupation: financial managers 65%, physicians and surgeons 71%, lawyers 76%, education administrators 78%, and registered nurses 92%.

Iceland is first in the world when it comes to gender pay equity.  “With a population of just 330,000—fewer people than currently work at Amazon—the island nation has had progressive equal pay laws for years.”  Not so in the United States.


President Donald Trump (R-NY) froze an equal pay wage data rule in 2017.  Compliance, The White House said “imposed an incredible amount of burden” on business.  The President also removed the Equal Pay Pledge from The White House website.


“Equal work deserves equal pay,” Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) said in 2015.  “This isn’t simply an issue of fairness, it’s about strengthening our middle class—putting food on the table, gas in the tank, and ensuring moms, daughters and sisters are not cheated out of their paychecks.”  Newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) references the gender earnings gap in her February Green New Deal Resolution.

George Washington objected to unequal pay.  On September 10, 1753, at the Winchester Conference, participating Native Americans cancelled the 1752 Treaty of Logstown (PA).  “[His] majesty King of Great Britain has at present a Design of making a settlement of Settlements of British subjects on the Southern or Eastern parts of the River Ohio called otherwise Allegheny…The settlement or settlements shall be unmolested [and] we will Protect the British subjects there inhabiting.”


Troubled by the termination, Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched Major George Washington, age 21, to Forts Venango and le Boeuf to investigate.  The Iroquois preferred the French and the French refused to withdraw from the Ohio Valley.  The militia’s 450 mile journey ended in January 1754.


“Giving up my commission is quite contrary to my intention,” Washington wrote Dinwiddie on May 24, 1754.  “[B]ut to be slaving dangerously for the shadow of pay, through woods, rocks, mountains,—I would rather prefer the great toil of a daily laborer, and dig for a maintenance…than serve upon such ignoble terms; for I really do not see why the lives of his Majesty’s subjects in Virginia should be of less value, than of those in other parts of

his American dominions; especially when it is well known that we must undergo double their hardship.”  Washington inherited ten slaves in 1750, Mount Vernon in 1752.

“We can’t conceive, that being Americans should deprive us of the benefits of British Subjects; nor lessen our claim to preferment,” Washington continued in 1757.  “We are defending the Kings Dominions, and altho the Inhabitants of Gt Britain are removed from (this) Danger, they are…equally with Us.”

By 1900 America had enjoyed more than a century of constitutional government.  In June 1900 Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor attacked workers’ wages.  “Low wages,” he argued, “were a social injustice.”  The AFL, founded in 1886 to represent skilled workers excluded women, blacks and immigrants.

The November 1900 presidential election proved a turning point.  Incumbent President William McKinley (R-OH) and Theodore Roosevelt (R-NY) won the male-only popular vote.  It was the Gilded Age.  Big business dominated; wages remained low, and wealth was concentrated.  The National Child Labor Committee formed in 1904.  Urban sweatshops were on the rise and New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 women.  Congress responded by passing an Act “forbidding corporations from contributing to election campaigns for national office” on January 26, 1907.

By 1920 World War I had come to a close.  More people lived in urban places than rural, whites “demanded” an institutional deference from blacks, and the Women’s Suffrage Amendment was law.  “A college student poll which found Jesus Christ coming in third behind Henry Ford and Napolean Bonaparte fortified the fears of those who thought the country had lost its moorings.”


Few women successfully traded domesticity for the workplace.  Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins—the first female appointed to a Cabinet post (1933-1945)—was one.  Said Secretary Perkins, “Pretty dresses for women are attractive, but don’t particularly invite confidence in their common sense.”  Perkins, the well-educated wife of Paul Caldwell Wilson died in 1965.

In the 1930s Virginia-born labor activist Lucy Randolph Mason “aggressively promoted the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO].”  Her mantra: collective bargaining.  As established by the Wagner Act of 1935.

“A kindly, gray haired woman who came to the labor movement in her fifties, [Lucy Randolph Mason] has rendered an invaluable service to the southern trade-union movement,” Bernard Karsh wrote.  “It is fitting that she should have devoted herself to the cause of civil rights, since it was her great-great-great grandfather, George Mason, who wrote Virginia’s Declaration of Human Rights.  Three of her kinsmen signed the Declaration of Independence; Chief Justice John Marshall was her mother’s relative and General Robert E. Lee was her father’s cousin.”  Mason authored Standards for Workers in Southern Industry, the first pamphlet of its kind in 1931.

Alexandria’s historic Lee-Fendall House Museum & Gardens invites all to visit its exhibit: John L. Lewis (1937-1969): Public Figure, Private Person.  In July 1937 Alexandria resident, President of the UMWA, CIO founder and President John L. Lewis offered Mason the job of CIO public relations director in the Southeast.  Support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s forthcoming Fair Labor Standards Act was split: between North (pro) and South (con).

In her 1952 autobiography, To Win These Rights, Mason, the daughter of Episcopal minister Landon Mason tells of many “instances where milltown preachers, invoking the authority of the church, collaborated with millowners and local police to deny civil rights to union members and organizers.”  She received The National Religion and Labor Foundation’s Social Justice Award also in 1952.

“Often when a union organizer was jailed in a small town, Miss Mason would be summoned to his aid,” Karsh explained.  “She would first seek out the local judge.  More often than not, a portrait of General Lee would be hanging in the judge’s office, whereupon she would begin a conversation by admiring the portrait and comparing it with the one which hung in her home.  She would then quietly point out that General Lee was her father’s cousin.  Thus disarmed, the judge tended to be a great deal more conciliatory.”

“Regional prejudices have been worn at the edges by the impact of new ideas, new personalities, union papers…and most of all belonging to a national union,” Mason recollected.  “Many people thought the salvation of southern society lay in keeping out democracy…The result was that southern states impoverished themselves—all of their citizens—by walling their people off from the benefits of American life.  In recent years the wall has begun to crumble.  While many forces have worked toward this end, the union movement has been at the forefront, drawing the energies of once prejudiced people into a joint endeavor that overcomes every barrier.”

What about today’s barriers?  A first ever 2016 study of pay equity by the Alexandria city government “found that female employees earned 94 cents for every $1 earned by their male peers.”  Progress, perhaps.

In 2017 the Contentedly Foundation, a non-profit for investigative journalism, found that “although women hold half of all state and federal service jobs, they make 10% less than men.  The employee earnings records also showed that 73% of government workers making $100,000 or more annually are men.”  Data was provided by all 50 states.  The Department of Defense was not analyzed.

In 2015 Defense Secretary Ashton Carter “opened all military occupations to women.”  There is no gender pay gap, even if there are fewer women because “at every rank, men and women are paid equally.”  That said sexual harassment and or assault remain real.    

The Institute for Women’s Research suggests the private sector’s gender pay gap is 20% or more.  “Wage gaps are a problem” and “racial wage gaps have worsened.”  According to JUST Capital only 51 of 897 companies, companies like Colgate-Palmolive, Intel and Microsoft “have made public commitments to pay equity.”  Wages in fact have stagnated while equity markets have risen.

According to the Economic Policy Institute “compensation for chief executive officers in America’s largest firms is now 312 times the annual average pay of the typical worker, compared with about 200 times in 2009, 58 times in 1989 and 20 times in 1965.”  The data illustrates the ever-widening gap between the haves—those in the top 0.1%—and the have-nots.  Income inequality is “the greatest since the 1920s.”

Lucy Randolph Mason’s success cannot be denied.  The gender pay gap in unionized workforces is smaller than in nonunionized workforces.  On March 16 Senator Bernie Sanders announced that all of his 2020 “presidential campaign employees below the rank of deputy director will be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 including matters of pay parity.”  The AAUW claims the only pay gap which favors today’s woman is that of wholesale and retail buyer.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 overturned the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc. Still the Virginia House of Delegates refuses to ratify the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment.  Not only do Virginia and the U.S. profess unequal pay, the U.S. is one of only two developed nations (U.S. and Serbia) whose maternal mortality rates have increased since 1990.  Either way, the politics must change.

On March 5 Montgomery County, Maryland Councilman Evan Glass unanimously introduced The Montgomery County Pay Equity Act (Bill 419).  When it passes, women will no longer be required to reveal their salary history when applying for a County job.  Unlike Virginia, the State of Maryland ranks 7th in gender equality.  The State ratified the ERA in 1972 and Maryland’s Equal Pay laws are “strong.”

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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