By: Suzette L. Steptoe
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, together women ought to be able to turn it right side up again.”
– Sojourner Truth
During the latter part of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, the attitude of most of the Suffragettes (women who advocated suffrage for women and voting rights) was that minority women should not be included in the movement. After the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, prominent Suffragettes such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
“Demanded — in the true liberal tradition — access to the mainstream of American society in terms of professions, education, law, politics, and property. [She] fought to end the barriers that denied American citizens their rights purely on the basis of sex. [However, she wrote fiery letters and gave speeches denouncing the passage of any law that allowed Black men to vote before] women such as herself; the white, middle-class, culturally if not religiously protestant, propertied and well-educated.”
This is important to note because it not only speaks to the racial divide but also the divide within the Suffrage movement.
The year 1920 changed the face of the American electorate forever. After nearly a century of protesting and legal battles, Tennessee ratified the 19th amendment. Tennessee’s ratification allowed the amendment to pass its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states and resulted in the biggest achievement for American women at that time the right to vote. Sadly, it did very little in advancing women towards equality in other areas.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that said the “separate but equal” theory was contrary to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and was therefore unconstitutional. The impact of this decision was felt across the country and it became the driving force behind the movement now known as the Civil Rights Movement. This movement prompted citizens to protest and demand bans on all forms of discrimination including voting, equal access, and workplace equality.
The feminist movement allowed more women to appear in the workforce, however, the movement did very little in the way of ensuring these women would earn the salaries their male counterparts were earning for the same work performed. Although there was virtually no way to explain this beyond speculation, some economists point to the hundreds of studies that have consistently found that a large portion of the pay differences could be attributed to gender discrimination. And historically, these differences were easily attributed to the custom of men supporting the family financially by working outside of the home while women worked within the home providing domestic support. It was assumed that, because women worked within the home, they did not have the opportunity to acquire the experience or education that men possessed. Economists felt that this assumption could be dispelled once women acquired the same levels of education and experience as men.
In 1961, President John Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (“Commission”). The primary goal of the Commission was to review employment policies in place for women and address the labor laws regarding working hours and wages and the lack of education for working women. The Commission’s findings did not itself bring about immediate changes but it was very influential in spawning many state commissions of the status of women, which promoted more equal opportunities for women. Prior to the Commission’s termination in 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act which made it illegal for employers to pay women less than men for the same duties performed. Additionally, the ruling in Supreme Court case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. brought the wage gap issue – the statistical 80 cents on each dollar that women were paid compared to men – into focus and although the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter (based on its interpretation of the statute of limitations to file a lawsuit), Congress later passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which gave women more leeway to fight discriminatory pay.
Because of these Acts, all women have somewhat fared better in terms of access to a variety of occupations, career advancement and income. Unfortunately, the wage difference continued as, in addition to experience, men were more likely to earn bachelors, masters and professional degrees. However, by the 1970’s, women began to make rapid gains that continue to increase and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earned twice as many college degrees than their male counterparts with females earning more than 52% of all degrees between 1999-2000. However, minority women earned, on average, 65% of associate’s degrees, approximately 64% of bachelor’s degrees and 60% of all doctorate degrees.
The Women’s Movement came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, and due to the efforts of both, legislation was passed giving women access to a large variety of occupations. White women seized this opportunity and gained entry into the workforce in unprecedented numbers and continue today to reap the fruits of the Movement’s labor while minority women, who fought the same battles, have not been so well rewarded. Between 1979 and 2013, inflation-adjusted earnings (also called constant-dollar earnings) rose by 31% for White women, compared with an increase of 20% for Black women and 15% for Hispanic women. As late as the fourth quarter of 2014, the median weekly earnings for White women was $738 with minority women averaging $573. Thus, even though minority women hold a higher percentage of earned degrees and are as experienced as their white female counterparts, in addition to earning a fraction of what men earn, minority women consistently earn approximately 31% lower salaries than White females in the same positions. These income disparities highly suggest that the Movements did not create a level playing field and it did little to eliminate workplace racism and sexism.
It is true that discriminatory practices inherent in workplace policies receive some attention from policy makers, but the focus is typically women in general or White women. Somehow, minority women, a protected class for which the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements should have safeguarded, were once again cast aside. Regardless of their educational background and skills, minority women are systematically relegated to the lower echelon of the salary hierarchy and will remain there until this issue is addressed in its proper context. The Civil Rights Movement allows minority women to stand at the door of equality but nobody thought to give them the key that actually unlocks the door.
 Lori D. Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life, (Hill and Wang 2009).
 Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007).