When Congress considered the Equal Pay Act in the spring of 1963, few objected to the values motivating the legislation. “The principle of equal pay for equal work is one which almost any citizen would strongly support,” wrote the National Retail Merchant Association in prepared testimony for the US Senate that April. Nevertheless, the NRMA opposed the bill “on the grounds that Federal legislation is not needed, that the added cost to administer such a law is unnecessary, and that an equitable law would be complex, confusing and difficult to enforce.”
Fifty-one years later, the conservative, anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum has this to say about the Paycheck Fairness Act, which expands on the 1963 legislation and will likely succumb this week to a Republican filibuster in the Senate: “Clearly, sex-based wage discrimination is wrong. Furthermore, it’s already illegal…This latest legislation—the Paycheck Fairness Act—won’t lead to more fairness or better pay. It will lead to more lawsuits, more red tape and fewer job opportunities for women and men.”
Not as much has changed since 1963 as one might have hoped, either in the workplace or in politics. Back then opponents of the Equal Pay Act said states were adequately addressing the issue of of equal pay. Others made excuses for the fact that women made 59 cents for every dollar their male colleagues earned, arguing, as Council of Economic Advisers chair Walter Heller did, that the “added costs” of hiring women were to blame. Skepticism about labor protection for women wasn’t strictly partisan; the Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on labor reportedly kept documents related to the Equal Pay Act filed under B, for “Broads.”
No one says now that the 1963 law was unnecessary or insignificant, though as its supporters acknowledged at the time of its passage, it was only a first step. Today, women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar—or just 64 cents and 55 cents for black and Hispanic women, respectively—and Republicans are dusting off arguments from last century to block updated legislation, claiming that while they still support its underlying principles, today’s pay really is equal, or else the work is not. (Whether filing methods have changed in the new millennium is unclear.)
Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, for example, called the concern about equal pay a “meme,” and Texas governor Rick Perry dismissed it as “nonsense.” Conservatives who do acknowledge the existence of a gender gap often attribute it to the concentration of women in lower-wage jobs. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and traditionally female industries—like education, nursing and domestic work—usually pay less than industries dominated by men, like engineering and IT. The fact that women are funneled into lower-paying fields is certainly a problem. But it’s also true that in almost every single occupation for which data is available, women earn less than male co-workers. That’s true within low-wage industries and in those traditionally dominated by women. For example, women make up nearly 90 percent of the nursing workforce, and they collect $1,086 in median weekly earnings. Male nurses take home an extra $150 each week, according to Institute for Women’s Policy Research.