4 Badass Women Throughout History Who Fought for Equal Pay—and Won

Updated 04/26/18

In honor of equal pay day, we want to pay homage to the women who came before us who fought for equal pay. But the fight is far from over. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, on average, women won’t reach pay parity until 2059. It’s even worse for women of color. Black women won’t see equal pay until 2124, and Hispanic women can’t look forward to equal pay until 2233. That’s if the rate of progress stays the same. However, looking back on those who challenged unequal pay proves that we don’t have to wait for the system to correct itself.

Here are just a few cases of women who took matters into their own hands.

Esther Peterson

Esther Peterson
Duane Howell /Getty Images

What She Did

As assistant secretary of labor and director of the Women’s Bureau during the Kennedy administration, Peterson led the campaign to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Along with a cohort of passionate activists, Peterson put pressure on Congress and President John F. Kennedy to see it signed into law.

Her Impact

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was an important step toward codifying the illegality of sex discrimination in terms of wages. Although the EPA hasn’t resulted in complete pay equality, by helping to pass a law for equal pay, an employee could now take her employer to court—opening up an important legal tool for gender equality.

What We Can Do Now

Many employees, especially in low-wage jobs, are forced into sign binding arbitration clauses when they accept a job. This means that they are basically forced to give up their right to a trial by jury in the case of workplace discrimination. Obviously employees are heavily disadvantaged in this process, and it allows companies to keep their discriminatory policies hush-hush. We need to push for an end to mandatory arbitration as a condition of employment so that women, and men, can win back their constitutional rights to a trial by a jury of their peers.

In order to move toward equal pay, we need transparency and legitimate legal scrutiny.

Her Words to Live By

“I go back to what Mrs. Roosevelt taught me: ‘Always compromise, but compromise upwards.’” Esther Peterson

“No matter how many humorous comments are made about the Equal Pay Bill as a ‘sex bill,’ the fact is that an overwhelming proportion of women feel that job and pay discrimination against them is a serious matter.” Esther Peterson

Flo Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson

Flo Kennedy
Denver Post / Getty Images

What They Did

In the late ’60s, Flo Kennedy, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and members of the National Organization for Women protested against the common practice of sex-segregated newspaper “help wanted” ads. At that time, one would open up a newspaper to find “Help Wanted—Male” and “Help Wanted—Female” ads. You can guess which column of jobs paid more. They picketed The New York Times for an entire week and launched a national campaign to stop the discriminatory practice that resulted in a structural pay gap. NOW filed a lawsuit, and as a result, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that separate want ads for men and women violated Title VII.

Their Impact

The activism of Kennedy, Atkinson, and NOW helped abolish the discriminatory practice of keeping women out of good-paying jobs. NOW’s visible victory and year-long campaign also energized feminist activists and contributed to the rising women’s movement.

What We Can Do Now

Even though it’s no longer legal to post sex-segregated job ads, labor divisions in the United States continue to reflect gender disparities. Although many women have been able to break into the professional ranks, they are overrepresented in the ranks of low-wage workers, where they continue to experience discrimination and pay inequity. Focusing on raising the minimum wage and increased protections for low-wage workers will help in closing the wage gap.

Their Words to Live By

“There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.” Flo Kennedy

“Women were not going to be able to overthrow their own oppression without banding together as a group and putting their anger together.” Ti-Grace Atkinson

“Don’t agonize. Organize.” Flo Kennedy

“I feel very strongly that one should live one’s beliefs.” Ti-Grace Atkinson

Lorena Weeks

What She Did

In the ’60s, Lorena Weeks worked as a night telephone operator at Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company. A mother of three young children, she jumped at the opportunity for a higher paying job when she saw a posting for a switchman position. Southern Bell denied her the position because she was a woman and gave the job to a man with less seniority. So Weeks, with the help of NOW, sued her employer and won the first sex discrimination case argued under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Not only did Weeks then get the position she rightfully deserved, she also received $31,000 in back pay.

Her Impact

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. But it took women like Lorena Weeks and organizations like NOW to put some teeth into the law. Weeks’s case set a precedent that helped ensure women weren’t denied jobs on the basis of their sex.

What We Can Do Now

Employers’ common practice of making potential employees disclose their salary history perpetuates pay inequality. Women are then systemically penalized for being paid less. Some cities and states have taken the lead on banning employers from inquiring about salary histories. We need to strengthen and expand these laws.

Her Words to Live By

“When I check out of the grocery store with a loaf of bread, they don’t say, “You’re a nice little lady and you can have that for 50 cents.’” — Lorena Weeks

“I have nothing against men. I have a wonderful husband and a son and two brothers that I adore. And I had nothing against anyone. I just felt like this was a point of law that needed to be changed because women were having to take the back seat in so many jobs.” — Lorena Weeks

Women continue to fight for equal pay today. On average, women make only 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man. It’s even lower for women of color. In order to attain equal pay, we need to understand all of the different ways women are discriminated against in the workforce—whether it’s being valued less, facing sexual harassment, having more care-taking responsibilities, or being denied access to certain jobs. It’s a daunting task, but women like Lorena Weeks, Flo Kennedy, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Esther Peterson have paved the way.

Electing women to political office is an important part of the movement toward equal pay. And women are taking this seriously. More women are running for elected than ever before. To learn more about why women are running for office, head over to Eleanor + Anna, an emerging newsletter featuring interviews with first-time female candidates. It’s going to take electing more women to see systemic change.

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