Then & Now 75 Years of Women and Employment Law

James McDonough, Membership Development

For the last 75 years, Employment Laws have been driven in part by the dramatically changing role of women in the American workplace. In 1939, the year MSEC was created, women comprised 22 percent of the workforce. Gender-based discrimination, and social norms of the times limited options for women in the American workplace. Middle and upper class women were expected to rear children, tend the home fires, and volunteer in charity work; employment outside the home was “gauche” and limited to “lace collar” jobs (retail clothing stores).

When the U.S. entered World War II, everything changed. At least 300,000 American women joined the armed forces, and millions filled the void in

American industry left by men who went to battle. Women were now working in industries and highly skilled jobs previously reserved for men only.

From 1940 to 1945, the female workforce grew 50 percent, with an astounding 462 percent increase in U.S. defense industries. Importantly, cultural norms shifted and it became acceptable for middle class women to work outside the home alongside nonfamilial men. Reflecting such changes, an important precedent was set in 1942 by the War Labor Board’s policy of equal pay for equal work that eliminated wage differentials based on sex (General Order No.16; Adopted 24 November 1942).

After WWII ended, many expected “Rosy the Riveter” to relinquish their jobs to returning GIs, and return to old roles. Many did just that and settled back into a complacent acceptance of pre-war norms. But underneath this smooth veneer, a new society was percolating. Many women’s career aspirations had expanded dramatically during the war years and their labor force participation continued to climb. There was no going back. The aspirations for gender equality in the workplace took hold with a flurry of significant Federal legislation in the early 1960’s. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act passed, the first law prohibiting sex discrimination. 1964 brought the Civil Rights Act and Title VII requiring equal employment opportunity and creation of the EEOC to enforce such rights. For the next decade, Employment Law evolved significantly as this landmark legislation impacted workplace practices throughout the country.

The Feminist movement gained steam into the 1970’s, with an emphasis on empowerment and workplace equality. The 1978 passage of the

Pregnancy Discrimination Act, prohibiting discrimination against women based on pregnancy or the possibility of pregnancy, was the sole significant new law. Under the radar a “quiet revolution” was taking place; a significant increase in women entering higher education for careers in male-dominated professions such as medicine, business and law. Millions of women clearly had goals of professional careers outside of the home. Reflecting women’s desire for Constitutional recognition and protection of their rights, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced to Congress in 1982. ERA failed to pass, and was sent to the states; 35 ratified it, short of the 38 required to pass. The bill has been introduced into every Congress since, but never passed. Employment Law continued to evolve with the 1993 passage of FMLA; granting job security rights to many workers for personal health and family illnesses. 2009 was a milestone year with The Paycheck Fairness Act (an attempt to address gender based wage gap) that failed to pass, but pay equity was addressed that year with passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (granting expanded time to seek legal redress for pay discrimination).

For 75 years, MSEC has witnessed the dynamic evolution of women and employment law in the American workplace. Today, women account for 47 percent of the labor force and by 2050 will number 92 million in the workplace. The journey continues.