On This Day: JFK Turns Equal Pay Act Into Federal Law

President Kennedy hands out pens during a ceremony at the White House today in which he signed into law a bill aimed at assuring women of paychecks equal to those of men doing the same work.
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

June 10 — On this day in 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. The Equal Pay Act served as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandated equal pay for equal work by forbidding employers from paying their workers different wages based on gender for doing the same jobs that required the same skills.

Since women began entering the American workforce in the early 20th century, they were paid significantly less than their male counterparts, even when it came to performing the exact same job. Some states also restricted the number of hours a woman could work and prevented them from working at night. After women began dominating factory jobs in place of men during World War II, Congress introduced the Women’s Equal Pay Act in 1945 but the measure failed to pass. Fifteen years later, women were still earning less than two-thirds of what their male counterparts did.

Fortunately, during the Kennedy administration, calls for federal equal pay law were brought back thanks to the support of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Representatives Katharine St. George and Edith Green; as well as Esther Peterson, the head of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. JFK praised the act as a “significant step forward” but also acknowledged that “much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity” for women.

Indeed, despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was made into federal law, more than 50 years later the American workforce still struggles with a gender pay gap. There are numerous loopholes in the Equal Pay Act that have allowed this to happen, allowing employers in most states the right to fire employees who share salary information with co-workers, for example. This makes it harder for women to realize they’re being underpaid, while many men refuse to believe that a wage gap even exists.

This is why for the last couple of years in April, Americans recognize Equal Pay Day as the day into the new year that women have to work to earn the same amount as men did in the previous year. Research suggests that if currents trends continue, women won’t achieve pay equity until 2059.