Today is Labor Day in America, which means we’re celebrating the working woman and man. Women indeed have a lot to celebrate on this day. Working conditions for women have improved dramatically since the early 20th century, and job opportunities for women have expanded considerably. Many workplaces recognize situations related to women that made it difficult for them to work in the past and accommodate these (such as maternity leave and daycare). And sexual harassment in the workplace has largely been addressed.
But one thing we can’t celebrate is the wage gap. That is, women are still not being paid equally to men on average for the same or similar jobs.
One of my favorite scenes in the classic comedy 9 to 5 is the closing (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film). As the three office workers (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) are going around with the head of the company, showing him all the positive changes they’ve made (like flex time and in-house daycare), the head tells their boss (Dabney Coleman) that the one change he doesn’t approve of is paying women in the company the same as the men. As the credits close and the women are toasting their success, they recognize the wage gap is still an issue. I love this scene because even though by 1980, the second-wave women’s movement had lost a lot of its earlier steam, partly because many women believed they had won the fight, it’s a reminder that the fight was (and is – see this blog post) on.
The wage gap has existed for centuries. In the Victorian era, when fewer women were in the workforce and few had careers, women were often paid half or less what men were paid. The reasons for this were, according to employers, practical. According to the separate spheres, men were the bread winners and expected to support their families so they needed more money (a point Coleman makes to Tomlin in 9 to 5 when he tries to justify his reasons for giving a promotion she’s been wanting to a less capable male colleague). Women were at that time not expected to work for long, since their true calling (per the separate spheres) was marriage and motherhood. Employers didn’t want to pay full wages to workers whom they viewed as temporary (even if they weren’t). In addition, women’s work was undervalued because they were seen as “the weaker sex”. The jobs they performed were limited to what employers thought they could do for the most part (read: boring, repetitive tasks, such as in the factories) and therefore, valued less than men’s.
There was one period in American history where women earned more or less the same as men: World War I. During the First World War, when men were scarce and workers were needed for the war effort, government officials agreed to pay women the same as men to entice them into the offices and factories, and many non-government employers followed suit. Sadly, this didn’t stick, not even during World War II when employers again needed women workers (women got paid about forty percent of what men earned during the Second World War).
Just like the ladies of 9 to 5, we’re still fighting the wage gap in the 21st century. Mid-20th century women were receiving a little more than half the wages of men on average, and that number remained pretty steady after the war. It’s only increased to about eight-three percent, according to a study done in 2020. So we’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.
I believe in the working woman, which is why there are a lot of them in my Adele Gossling Mysteries. There are a number of women entrepreneurs (including Adele herself), but there are also women working for employers (such as the young ladies rooming at Mrs. Taylor’s boarding house, whom readers meet in Book 2). The victim in my new release, The Case of the Dead Domestic is, as the title implies, a maid working for a wealthy family when she gets killed. You can check out this sixth book of the series here.
As for the practices of Labor Day in the early 20th century, you can experience what that was like in Book 4 of the series, which takes place on the holiday in 1904!
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