Denver Post via Getty, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for City of Hope
- The fight for women’s pay equality has raged among activists, celebrities, and lawmakers for nearly half a century.
- Despite landmark American laws, women working in the US still face major obstacles, including a gender-based pay gap that costs them thousands of dollars every year.
The US passed the Equal Pay Act more than 50 years ago, but American women still face a substantial gender-based wage gap.
Despite landmark legislation and radical demonstrations made to push for pay parity between the sexes, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates equality might still be out of reach until 2059.
A woman working full-time in 2019 on average earns 80.7 cents for every dollar a man working full-time earns, which shrinks women’s annual earnings, the median of which is $9,909 less than men’s, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
Here are some women in politics, entertainment, and social justice who have contributed to the decades of pay parity’s progress so far — many of whom you probably didn’t learn about in school, and some who might surprise you:
Lawyer and activist Florynce "Flo" Kennedy
Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Lawyer and political activist Florynce "Flo" Kennedy‘s wide-ranging career fought sexist and racist policies in and out of the workplace.
Kennedy attended Columbia Law School after an initial rejection because she was a woman. After Kennedy threatened a discrimination suit, the school admitted her and she became one of its first black female graduates in 1951.
After opening her own office, one of Kennedy’s first cases was on behalf of jazz legend Billie Holiday, who was seeking money her record company owed her. Kennedy quickly grew tired of law, writing the practice had "taught me more than I was really ready for about government and business delinquency and the hostility and helplessness of the courts."
Turning to activism, Kennedy took on Ti-Grace Atkinson, a white feminist who led the New York Chapter of NOW in the late 1960s, as a mentee. Together, they took aim at want ads in The New York Times that were segregated by sex, thus blocking women from jobs that consistently paid more.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission acknowledged NOW’s contention in 1968 that separate want ads for men and women violated the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
The victory was a strong initial development for empowering women who were trying to enter the workforce and a shot of energy to feminist movements in the 1960s.
Presidential adviser Esther Peterson
As the head of the Women’s Bureau under President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Esther Peterson pushed the president toward securing formal progress for women through initiatives like the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
Peterson spent years gathering data and organizing interested members in a campaign that would lead to the passing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which set the stage for other anti-discriminatory laws.
Southern Bell employee Lorena Weeks
Screenshot via Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
In 1966, Lorena Weeks was working as a night telephone operator at the Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company and juggling raising three young children. When the company posted an opening for a higher paying job, Weeks was eager to apply.
But Southern Bell denied her the position because she was a woman and hired a man with less seniority. So Weeks teamed up with NOW to sue the company. The case was the first victory under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Not only did Weeks make history by setting a precedent that helped ensure women weren’t denied jobs on the basis of their sex, she got the job and $31,000 in back pay.
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