Equal Pay for Equal Work is a Terrifying Notion
I became aware of gender discrimination when I was a child in kindergarten in the 1960s. It happened because of a fabulous toy that suspended wooden airplanes on a metal track. Every day during playtime a group of boys grabbed the airplane toy before I could get to it.
On this one particular day when I checked the toy shelf I found the airplane toy still there. The boys were playing with a new toy that involved cars. Finally, the airplanes were mine!
I sat down with the toy, but before I got to play with it my teacher came running over.
“Chrissie, dear, that toy is for the boys. I am sure there are some boys who want to play with it. Let’s put that back and find you a good toy for girls.”
I was hurt and angry, but I did as I was instructed. It didn’t make sense to me that there could be such privilege for one gender, and such injustice for the other.
That night my mother confirmed it. Women were not treated fairly, and had been fighting for their rights for years. Mom agreed that girls could play with airplanes, and even fly real airplanes. She also reminded me that my teacher was very old and might not understand that beliefs about what girls could do were changing.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s I subscribed to Ms. Magazine, wore tee shirts with feminist slogans and joined marches and protests. In the early 1980s I worked for the National Women’s Political Caucus campaigning for the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment.
There was a song we used to sing which discussed the economic inequality of the genders. It was called Fifty-Nine Cents, a reference to the fact that, at the time, women made fifty-nine cents for every dollar earned by a man in the United States.
I bring up that equal rights anthem because of a remark made by President Obama in his State of the Union address this week.
“You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns," Obama said. "That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work."
That really struck me. It has been over thirty years that I, as an adult women, have been engaged in the fight for gender equality, along with so many other fine people. In that time we have won exactly eighteen cents. Eighteen cents in thirty years. That’s not even a penny a year.
I wonder what I would say to my twenty-year-old self if I could travel back in time. “All those doors you are knocking on, all those letters you are writing, all that fundraising you are doing…” I might say. “All that you are doing, along with all the hundreds of thousands of other women, will earn you eighteen cents over the course of thirty years.”
How might my twenty-year-old self react to that? Would I say “Well, at least it’s a step in the right direction?” Or would I hang up my marching shoes and recognize my work as a basic waste of time?
Eighteen cents in a step in the right direction. Change takes time, especially when the power structure doesn’t want to change.
Our gender-based society of yesteryear defined masculinity as being able to take care of a woman. I suppose if a woman is making enough money she doesn’t need a man to take care of her financially. That could be threatening to men, I suppose.
Some of the fault lies with the women, too, who feel that having a man take care of a woman financially makes her feel “like a lady.”
Every family has to figure out what works for them financially and logistically. Sometimes one parent elects to stay at home with the kids while the other brings home the money. The days in which the man was always the breadwinner and the woman was always the caregiver are long gone.
To deny a woman, especially a mother, access to equal pay for equal work creates hardship not just for women, but for their families.
When I was very young, my family consisted of just my mother and me. Mom worked a job to support us. One day she discovered that a male peer whose time with the company was shorter than Mom’s and whose tasks were exactly the same was paid substantial more than she was.
When Mom confronted her boss, this was the answer she received. “We have to pay him more because he has a family.”
That was almost forty-five years ago. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In the eyes of the boss, our family was not a family because it didn’t contain a man.
We’ll come a long way since then, but obviously not far enough.
These days, I notice many strong men and women who believe in the radical concept of equal pay for equal work choose not to identify themselves as “feminist.” When I ask them why, they don’t really have an answer. The concept of being a feminist feels uncomfortable to them.
I think they have let other people define feminism for them in false ways. “Feminists hate men.” “Feminists don’t love their children.” “Feminists are complainers.”
Rush Limbaugh once said “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.” I don’t think I need to deconstruct everything that is wrong with that sentence.
The sad part is, that kind of smear campaign against a simple request for inclusion actually worked.
Here’s another quote about feminism that makes more sense to me, from suffragist and journalist Rebecca West. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
When I was young I believe that to be a funny quote. It was tongue-in-cheek. Of course the basic notion that women are people can’t be radical and scary, can it?
Apparently, I was wrong. The concept of treating women like people is terrifying.
The sad part to me is this. If I do the math based on history, I am not likely to see equal pay for equal work as a national policy in my lifetime.
Carry on, daughters.