Today, we celebrate International Women’s Day, as well as A Day Without A Woman. It is a day where women throughout the United States can show economic solidarity, coming together for equity, justice and the human rights of all women and gender-oppressed people throughout the world.
In honor of this historic day, we are honoring the progress women have made toward gender equality in the workplace by looking back on the history of women in the workplace — and examining what work still remains.
In 1825, the United Tailoresses of New York became the first labor union for women who protested the unfair wages and terrible working conditions in the textile and clothing industry. Since then, women have made incredible leaps and bounds toward gender equality in the workforce. While we are still fighting to close the wage gap, women make up nearly half of the unionized labor force today.
The rise of industrialization in the United States in the early 1800s provided young women with a chance to work within the textile and clothing industry. However, the pay and working conditions were often poor, resulting in the establishments of women’s unions and mill strikes. African American women often worked in domestic services, particularly after the abolishment of slavery 1865. Toward the end of the 1800s, more young white women became nurses, teachers, sales clerks, and later secretaries, resulting in an influx of young female immigrant workers in factories. Despite these new job opportunities, women were still paid low wages and most were expected to quit these jobs once they married.
The development of the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL) in 1903 marked collaboration between educated women reformers, who were mostly white Protestants, and young women workers, who were mostly immigrants, to improve the factory wages and working conditions. Protests and strikes continued during this time, most notably the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909, where twenty thousand immigrants, largely consisting of young Jewish women, launched an 11-week strike against New York’s shirtwaist industry, demanding improved wages, working conditions, and hours, which were provided the following year.
After WWI, where women further aided the war effort as nurses and other support positions, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed NWTUL members, such as Frances Perkins, into leadership positions. Perkins went on to oversee the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, both of which furthered wage-and-hour and safety protections for both male and female workers. Unfortunately, agricultural and domestic workers, which were mostly women of color, were not covered under this legislation.
Employment for women continued to grow during WWII, where women replaced drafted men in the workforce and took on positions in plants and factories to make war products. By the end of WWII, women made up over one-third of the workforce, but they were paid significantly less than men in the same positions. Most of these workers were forced to leave these jobs when the war ended. Still, women proved that they were more than capable of working “men’s” jobs and the question of equal pay for equal work came into focus. As we discussed in our last blog post, How Far We’ve Come!, The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal to pay different genders different salaries for the same work. Unfortunately, the limited scope and enforcement of the act resulted in the continuation of gender inequality in the workplace.
With the rise of the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s, there was a greater focus on women’s issues in the workplace. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 protected the rights of pregnant employees, and the Family Medical Leave Act of 1991 enabled parents to take time off of work for medical and family reasons without losing their job. While women of color were largely excluded from the mainstream feminist movement, Black feminists like Shirley Chisholm and Eleanor Holmes Norton worked to join the civil rights and feminist movement in regards to labor to improve the working conditions of domestic service. In 1974, the Fair Labor Standards Act was expanded to cover domestic services, improving the wages and working conditions of these workers.
The fight for gender equality in the workforce continued to develop in the early 2000s. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Act restored protection against pay discrimination that was limited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc.
We have come a long way since the United Tailoresses of New York in 1825, but the wage gap continues today. Women only earn 79 cents for every dollar that men make, with women of color making far less. Black women only make 60 cents a dollar, and Hispanic women only make 55 cents a dollar. Just as the amazing women before us, we must continue to fight for gender equality in the workplace. We must educate ourselves and others on the injustice of the wage gap for all women to spread awareness of the issue.
One way that you can join the cause is by participating in Equal Pay Day. Equal Pay Day started with National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996 and is a public awareness event. This year, Equal Pay Day is on April 4th, 2017, marking how far into the subsequent year women must work to earn the wages men earned in the previous year.