The year was 1963: President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated to his second presidential term, the Vietnam and Cold Wars were at their peak, and segregation and its consequences were contaminating the nation. While prices were lower, the cost of denial of human rights was at an all-time high. The American public had to confront the social, political, and economic injustice that founded the country. A critical step in that direction was the passage of the Equal Pay Act, which turns 60 this year.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to require that if wages are distributed unequally between people of different sexes who perform substantially equal jobs, employers must raise wages to equalize pay and not reduce the wages of other individuals.
It is important to note that Congress passed the Equal Pay Act one year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which federally outlawed racial segregation. When legislators of the time said “women,” they meant “white women.” The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which outlawed discrimination against women in the workplace, was not designed to combat racial discrimination and could not provide complete protections for women of color because it passed during the Jim Crow Era. While the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was considered a milestone for women’s labor rights, it was incomplete because it initially failed to include all women.
Additionally, it wasn’t until 1965 that President Lyndon B. Johnson passed Executive order 11246, which required federal agencies fully implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ensure nondiscriminatory practices for individuals hired by the U.S. government, providing yet another example of how it took many years as well as many added amendments and legislations to begin to undo the Jim Crow Era.
Furthermore, after the emancipation of slavery, the Black Codes mandated that formerly enslaved people were required to work and sign labor contracts that bound them to minimal to no pay to maintain the exploitative status quo; if they refused, they risked being arrested, fined, and forced into unpaid labor. The Black Codes forced Black women to work as maids and childcare workers for white families, which further marginalized Black women within the workforce. The legacy of the Black Codes exists today as Black women are overrepresented in low-paid occupations and underrepresented in the jobs that pay the most. The inequalities between groups of women in the workforce are still pervasive today due to racial, ethnic, age, and disability discrimination. IWPR’s Equal Pay Day reports highlight the difference in earnings among women of different racial groups.
Women’s rights laws have only coincidentally and not intentionally included women of color. As evidenced by the relationship between the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 would not include women of color within its protections until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While intended to expand rights for marginalized groups, both pieces of legislation failed to explicitly include the individuals facing the exponential effects of racial discrimination and misogyny because they fall between the margins. Historically, it has been a great disservice to women with intersecting identities to treat matters of race and gender as mutually exclusive.
As we celebrate the progress and achievements of women, it is imperative to recognize that efforts to address specific compounded challenges and discrimination unique to women with numerous identities are vital to progress for all women. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Even today, there are limitations in the legal protections for women. While legislation currently exists to help women in the workforce, these laws only protect women with the privilege of U.S. citizenship and visa protection. In contrast, undocumented women are unaccounted for in the gender economy. Rigid immigration laws that deny visa status and citizenship privileges to many working women seeking asylum in the United States make them more susceptible to exploitation and discrimination.
This Women’s History Month, it is essential to reflect on all women’s history within the U.S. to learn from the past. Women’s and civil rights legislation have failed to include an intersectional lens to protect all people, specifically women of intersecting marginalized identities. Moving forward, it is crucial for legislation like the Equal Pay Act to include explicit language that uplifts and protects women of color.