Contrary to widespread belief, women have been employed outside the home well before the advent of modern times. It is true, however, that the scope of their employment has been subject to dramatic changes over the centuries. Often, the progress made by one generation was scaled back in the next, only to undergo a resurgence with shifting cultural trends. Let’s look at some key landmarks in the history of women in the workplace.
Equal pay legislation (1872) – The ideal of “equal pay for equal work” is older than many people realize. In 1872, pioneering female attorney Belva Ann Lockwood, a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass a law guaranteeing equal pay for women employed as federal employees. (Lockwood later became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.)
District of Columbia minimum wage law (1918) – Washington D.C.’s minimum wage law was passed to protect the rights of women and children in the workplace by ensuring that they could “maintain decent standards of living.1” This did not last long, however.
Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) – This Supreme Court case struck down the District of Columbia minimum wage law by a 5-3 decision, on the grounds that it interfered with the right of laborers to negotiate their own wages.
World War II – The Second World War saw millions of women entering the workforce to compensate for the loss of manpower brought on by conscription. Rosie the Riveter became a widely recognized cultural icon. Unfortunately, with the conclusion of WWII many industrious women were pressured against their will to return to “traditional” female roles.
Equal Pay Act of 1963 – This landmark legislation forbade employers from paying women less money than men for jobs that require the same skills and responsibilities. Unlike the 1872 “equal pay” law, the Act covered the workforce as a whole, not just the federal government. The Act did allow unequal pay in order to recognize seniority, superior merit, and similar factors, so long as these considerations were not based on gender.
Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Coming on the heels of the Equal Pay Act, this legislation famously outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.2” Title VII of the act extended these safeguards into the workplace, specifically to businesses with 15 or more employees. Additionally, Title VII led to the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965. The EEOC continues to enforce Title VII to this day.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 – An amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this broadened the scope of sex discrimination laws to guarantee that pregnant women were protected as well.
Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 – The most recent of the major legislative acts to defend the rights of women workers, this was the first bill that President Obama signed into law. It is yet another amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act essentially extends the window of time in which an employee can file a lawsuit regarding an equal pay violation by recalculating the statute of limitations to begin with the last paycheck issued to the employee. Previously, the statute of limitations was determined by the courts to begin with the onset of the employer’s discriminatory treatment.