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ACLU and the Equal Pay Act of 1963: Celebrating 50 Years of Advocacy

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Tyler Ray,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 6, 2013

This June 10th, the ACLU will join organizations and individuals across the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a landmark law that required equal pay for equal work for women for the first time. If you don’t mind us tooting our own horn for a minute, the ACLU played an instrumental role in the passage of the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago and in expanding women’s rights since our founding in 1920.

Among those who played an important part of the legislative history of the Equal Pay Act was ACLU Board member Judge Dorothy Kenyon, a trailblazer in the women’s rights movement who led the early efforts to achieve equal pay for women. Dorothy Kenyon was appointed to the League of Nations Committee on the Legal Status of Women from 1938 to 1940 and later served as the first U.S. delegate to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. While serving as delegate, Judge Kenyon put forth the first resolution ever on equal pay for women to be introduced in the United Nations, which received the unanimous support of all the countries serving on the Commission.

Judge Kenyon’s experience on this issue was invaluable when she led the ACLU’s efforts to pass the Equal Pay Act. Judge Kenyon testified in 1962 before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Labor where the Chairman of the Subcommittee Herbert Zelenko (D-NY) recognized that her testimony would “form an integral part of the consideration of the committee.” Although the final version of the bill wasn’t signed into law until the following year, the 1962 hearings were critical in shaping the legislation.

Judge Kenyon’s testimony provided a strong legal analysis in support of the Equal Pay Act, as she fiercely advocated for an issue she described as “so close to my heart“. She perfectly captured the importance of equal pay for all in her testimony:

This is a simple question of fair play based on the constitutional principle of equal treatment and due process of law…Whether black or white, men or women, no difference is tolerable…Women have suffered from this evil long enough. They are in industry to stay. They deserve to be treated like all other human beings in a land of freedom and equality.

Judge Kenyon was joined by others within the ACLU working towards the passage of the Equal Pay Act. In fact, the ACLU testified a total of three times before both the House and Senate, contributing along with many other instrumental organizations to the final passage of the Act in 1963. Sonia Pressman, an attorney appearing on behalf of the Washington Legislative Office (WLO) of the ACLU, accompanied by then WLO Director Lawrence Speiser, testified before both the House and Senate in 1963, illustrating the similarities between the proposed Equal Pay Act and existing protections in other laws:

We have, then, here nothing new or radical to propose. We simply ask that those methods which have been found meritorious to combat discrimination based on race, religion, creed, national origins, and union membership be applied to an area where discrimination is equally invidious—discrimination based on sex.

Following her work with the ACLU, Sonia Pressman went on to become a founding member of the National Organization for Women and the first woman attorney in the general counsel’s office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), responsible for drafting a number of the EEOC’s initial landmark guidelines. In recognition of her achievements, Sonia Pressman was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

With women still only making 77 cents to the dollar, the ACLU’s legislative and administrative advocacy efforts to achieve pay equity continue to this day. While the Equal Pay Act was a ground-breaking law, we have not progressed enough.

This critical law needs to be updated and strengthened, and that is why the ACLU continues to fight for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would amend the Equal Pay Act and help to end this ongoing wage gap by providing stronger remedies for wage discrimination based on gender equal to those for race discrimination, by prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices, and by requiring that employers demonstrate that wage differences between men and women doing the same work have a business justification. This bill has come very close to passage in Congress, but the fight continues.

Along with other partners, the ACLU has been there since the inception of the fight for women’s equal pay for equal work, and we will continue to work for reforms until pay equity is realized for all. After all, as Judge Kenyon so aptly said….we are in the industry to stay.

Want to do something about the wage gap? Ask Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

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