Equal Pay Act of 1963

The Equal Pay Act, signed in to law by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963, was one of the first federal anti-discrimination laws that addressed wage differences based on gender. The Act made it illegal to pay men and women working in the same place different salaries for similar work.

color poster of woman with drill and red head wrap
World War II Employment Poster

P.G. Harris, US Employment Service War Manpower Commission, 1942-1945

During the first decades of the 20th century, women made up less 24% of the U.S. workforce. During World War II, however, labor shortages brought large numbers of women in to the workplace and by 1945, women made up 37% of the civilian workforce. Because women had traditionally earned less than men for doing similar work, male workers feared that this growing source of cheap labor would replace them or lower their wages. As men began to join the military and women began to take over their civilian jobs, unions started to advocate for equal pay. They felt that this would prevent employers from undercutting future wages for men. In addition, the National War Labor Board endorsed the idea of equal pay for equal work. They issued a General Order supporting equal pay for men and women for work that was of "comparable quality and quantity."

Seeking a Legal Path Forward

In 1945, Congress introduced the Women's Equal Pay Act which contained the phrase "comparable work." This meant equal pay for different jobs in the same workplace. Pay was to be determined by comparing the worth and/or difficulty of the jobs. The phrase was the subject of heated debate and the bill failed to pass. After the war, federal and civilian policies allowed employers to replace female workers with males. Many companies would only hire men, even if they had hired women during the war. Those that had hired women reclassified their jobs and lowered their pay. Newspapers published separate job listings for men and women and some help wanted ads ran identical jobs, but with different pay scales for men and women. The percentage of women working outside the home dropped to less than 28% of the total workforce.
Throughout the 1950s, several bills seeking equal pay for women were introduced in Congress, but all failed to move forward. By 1960, there were approximately 25 million women working outside the home. While women again accounted for 37% of the total workforce, they only earned an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men.

The Equal Pay Act is Born

women working on documents around  table
Esther Peterson writing at a meeting of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, 1962.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

In 1961, labor activist Esther Peterson was appointed to head the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor, which was responsible for administering gender-issue labor laws. At her urging, President Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to develop recommendations for achieving equality. She gathered data, built coalitions, and won over opponents in a successful campaign to bring an Equal Pay Act before Congress. In February of 1963, Esther Peterson submitted a draft bill of an Equal Pay Act to Congress on behalf of the Kennedy administration.
The draft bill called for equal pay for "comparable work." This phrase had proven to be problematic in the past and after much discussion, was eventually changed to the less controversial "equal work" which meant, "jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions." With this change, supporters of the legislation were able to move the bill forward.
Segments of the business community opposed the Equal Pay Act. These included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Merchants Association (NRMA) both of whom argued that women were more expensive to employ than men. This was supposedly due to added costs associated with female workers. Both organizations claimed that these costs were caused by higher rates of absenteeism and turnover among female workers and by state laws requiring special benefits such as rest periods, a longer time for meals, and separate toilets. In addition, they maintained that the issue of equal pay was already being addressed in 21 states, and that federal legislation was unnecessary, impossible to enforce, and would create more problems than it would solve.
To calm the business community's fears, Congress decided to make the Equal Pay Act an amendment to the already existing Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). These standards labor such as basic minimum wage and overtime pay and affected most private and public employment. In addition, the FLSA provided established procedures for investigating violations of the standards and clearly defined penalties. With these changes the Equal Pay Act passed the House and Senate and was signed in to law on June 10, 1963.
During the signing ceremony, President Kennedy acknowledged the importance of a woman's earning power and the need for provisions that would allow her to reach her full earning potential, such as better day care services and tax deductions to cover the cost of such services. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was, he acknowledged, only a "first step" and "much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity."
The following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 further strengthened laws for gender equality by making it illegal to discriminate not only on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, but also on the basis of sex.

Last updated: April 1, 2016