March is Women’s History Month. On last year’s Equal Pay Day, Kaiser Permanente Chairman and CEO Bernard J. Tyson tweeted that, on average, American women must work 15 months to earn what men earn in a year. “At Kaiser Permanente, we are committed to ensuring equity in pay,” he wrote.
But the struggle for equal pay for equal work started long ago. One of its watershed moments was the World War II home front — and much of that took place in the Kaiser defense industries.
Access to jobs and pay equity for women were significant issues at the time, when the long-standing workforce changed dramatically. Healthy, white men went into the military, and industries needed workers it had never considered before.
Henry J. Kaiser was an atypical industrialist, and long before had learned that good labor relations and nondiscrimination — in any form — were smart business practices. With the notable exception of Japanese-Americans, Kaiser’s World War II shipyards embraced the most diverse workforce imaginable, including foreign nationals, the disabled, people of color, and women. Before World War II, women comprised approximately 13 million workers, but the war swelled that number up to 19 million.
The home-front industries needed women workers, and appeals were made to their patriotism. Newspaper recruiting ads in the “Female Help Wanted” section went to great lengths to attract women. The Kaiser Aero-Fleetwings plant in Pennsylvania included a 372-word essay, “How to end the war the Kaiser Cargo way.”
The first 2 women to work as welders in America’s World War II maritime shipyards were Mary C. Carroll and Jeanne W. Wilde, hired at the Kaiser shipyards in Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 1942. They did the same work as men and were paid the same rate — $1.20 an hour.
Before the war, “women’s pay was consistently lower than men’s — except in Michigan, where such discrimination was a misdemeanor,” according to a November 22, 1942 Associated Press article “Women War Workers: They Don’t Know What It’s About, But They Get Results” by Amy Porter. “And the unions condoned this situation, since women held only interior ‘women's jobs’ and weren't numerous anyway. Pay differentials based on sex were written into many pre-war union contracts.”
The federal government set the tone for equal pay with the creation of the National War Labor Board at the beginning of 1942. In November of that year, it issued General Order No. 16, requiring companies to equalize pay between men and women. Historian Andrew E. Kersten noted that by January 1944, “the Board handled over 2,250 cases … resulting in wage increases for nearly sixty thousand women workers.”
It was no coincidence that the secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. In the groundbreaking 1942 bulletin #196, “‘Equal Pay’ for Women in War Industries,” the government’s position, expressed by Secretary Perkins and Mary Anderson, the director of the Women’s Bureau, was unequivocal: “Wage rates for women should be the same as for men, including the entrance rate.”
Although most unions supported the equal-pay goal, it was a moot point when women were barred from membership in some of them (as initially occurred with the Boilermakers’ Union, which during World War II was entrenched in protecting its white male base). But by late November, more than 3,000 women at the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland had received their union cards, and a similar influx of women into unions took place in Richmond, California.
That AP news story pointed out that, less than a year after Pearl Harbor, women had “managed to accomplish an industrial revolution all their own within a very short time” through the first large-scale unionization of women, winning the first legislation for equal pay through the War Labor Board, and revising “protective” legislation that hampered employment opportunities.
The 1942 AP article concluded with this optimistic view: “Now the equal pay principle is acknowledged, if not always lived up to. The West Coast leads the country in putting the principle into practice.”
More than 75 years later, “the principle” remains unresolved. Let’s roll up our sleeves and honor women workers.