Equal Pay for Equal Work: Rathbone and Fawcett in 1918

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Rathbone and Fawcett in 1918

Timothy Taylor 09/07/2018 5

One hundred years ago, the leading British economics journal (edited by John Maynard Keynes) published an article and a response from two women authors: Eleanor Rathbone and Millicent Fawcett. Despite writing in the Economic Journal, neither had professional training in economics. But they were clearly recognized as experts with opinions that economists hear.

Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946) graduated from Somerville College at Oxford in 1893. In 1909 she was elected to the Liverpool city council; in 1929, she was elected to Parliament. Much of her focus was on government support for needy children, and over time she authored a number of article and books on the topic, as well as advocating in her political roles. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847–1929) is known by those who study the history of economic thought as the author of a Political Economy for Beginners book that went through 10 editions over 41 years. She was led the largest UK suffragist organization, and played a role the founding of Newnham College, Cambridge. 

Rathbone led off with her article, "The Remuneration of Women's Services" (Economic Journal, March 2017, 27: 105, pp. 55-68). She argued that although women had been accepted into many jobs during World War I, the situation was not sustainable. She offered reasons why women and men were not equal in the workplace. But her particular focus, as in much of her life, was on who would pay for the costs of raising children. In her view, men needed to be paid more because many of them were providing for families. She was quick to note that this method of providing for families didn't always work very well--given different pay, different number of children, and men who didn't pass along much of their income to their families. She argued that if the government provided greater support for children (again, this was her long-standing cause), then equality of pay for women would be more likely to work well, because the "men need to support a family" argument would no longer hold.  Here are some samples of her argument:

"In industry, the outbreak of the war [that is, World War I]found the women workers confined almost entirely, except in a few occupations traditionally their own, to the lowest, most ill-paid, and unskilled occupations. The barriers that kept them out of the skilled trades were for the most part unrecognised by law, but they were almost completely effective, being built up partly of tradition, partly of trade union regulations, but mainly of the sex exclusiveness in which employers and employed made common cause. Against these barriers the "women's movement" had beaten itself for half a century in vain, but within two years the necessities of the war have broken them down--by no means completely, but to such an extent that it is plain that if re-erected they will have to be based frankly upon the desire of the male to protect himself from competition, and no longer upon the alleged incapacity of the female to compete. ... 

"The women themselves, ill-organised and voteless, with the sentiment in favour of the returning soldiers not only strong against them but strong among them, could not by themselves put up much of a fight. But they are likely to have two powerful allies: first, in the employers, who, having tasted the advantages of a great reserve of cheap, docile, and very effective labour are obviously not going to let themselves be deprived of it without a struggle; and secondly, in the growing public sense of the necessity on national grounds of making the most of our economic resources. ...

"This difficulty may be most shortly put in the form of a question: "Is fair competition between men workers and women workers possible, bearing in mind the customary difference in the wage level of the two sexes and the causes of that customary difference? In other words, is it possible for women with men, without undercutting their standards undermining their standards of life? " The reply offered by feminists to this question prompt and unhesitating, and is practically a denial of the difficulty. Women, they say, must, of course, be freely in all occupations. But they must not undercut.  They must demand and receive equal wages for equal work. This is the claim put forward by practically all women, except, of course, when they are themselves employing women.  I have not yet met the feminist whose principles compel her to pay her waitress the wages that would be demanded by a butler. ...

"There are in the eyes of most employers certain standing disadvantages of women's labour which have to be reckoned with. There is the fact that the law will not allow him to work her at night nor for overtime, except under rigid restrictions; that her liability to sickness (in most trades) is rather greater; that he cannot put her to lift heavy weights or to do odd jobs; that he cannot comfortably swear at her if she is stupid; that, in short, she is a woman, and most employers, being male, have a "club " instinct which makes them feel more at ease with an undiluted male staff. Above all, there is the overwhelming disadvantage, if the occupation is a skilled one, that she is liable to "go off and get married just as she is beginning to be of some use." Of course, there are advantages which to a certain extent counterbalance these disadvantages from the employer's point of view. There is the greater docility of women; their greater willingness to be kept at routine work; their lesser liability to absence on drinking bouts, to strikes, and to other disturbances of the economic routine. But obviously most of these "advantages " are likely to be regarded by the employer rather as reasons why he can safely exploit women than as reasons why he should equitably pay them as much as men.  ... 

"After all, perhaps the most important function which any State has to perform--more important even than guarding against its enemies--is to secure its own periodic renewal by providing for the rearing of fresh generations. ...  During the last forty-six years the State has taken directly upon itself the cost of the school education of its young, and it is gradually in a hesitating and half-hearted way taking over the cost of some of the minor provisions necessary for child-nurture, such as midwifery (paid for through the maternity benefit), medical attendance (through child-welfare centres, medical school inspectors, &c.). But the great bulk of the main cost of its renewal it still pays for, as it has always done, by the indirect and extraordinarily clumsy method of financing the male parent and trusting to him somehow to see the thing through. It does not even finance him directly, but leaves it to what it is fond of calling "blind economic forces " to bring it about that the wages of men shall be sufficient for the purposes of bringing up families. The "blind forces" accomplish this task, as might be expected, in a very defective and blundering way, with a good deal of waste in some places and a much worse skimping in others, but upon the whole they do accomplish it ...

"The wages of women workers are not based on the assumption that "they have families to keep," and in so far as these wages are determined by the standard of life of the workers it is a standard based on the cost of individual subsistence, and not on the cost of family subsistence. ...  For, after all, the majority of women workers are birds of passage in their trades. Marriage and the bearing rearing of children are their permanent occupations. ... 

"It is outside the scope of the present article to consider what should be the basis, the scale, and the machinery of any system by which the State should take upon itself the prime cost of rearing future generations. It might be done through a continuance of something resembling the present system of separation allowances, which provides for the upkeep of individual homes. The allowance might be on a flat rate-so much for the woman and so much for each child; or it might be dependent to some extent on the amount of the allotment made by the man from his pay. Or, again, our system of elementary schools might be developed into day boarding-schools, where children were fed and clad as well as taught, and could enjoy organised play. In the upper and middle classes, practically every parent who can afford it either commits his children to such schools or sends them altogether away from home."

Millicent Fawcett's rejoinder "Equal Pay for Equal Work," was published 100 years ago this month. (Economic Journal,  March 1918 28:109, pp. 1-6). Fawcett refers to Rathbone's "interesting article," which seems like the prelude to a robust British disagreement.  Fawcett sidesteps the arguments about the role of the state in supporting children. Instead, she insists on equal pay for equal work. Her case is partly a matter of fairness; indeed, she cites examples that the inexperienced and untrained women who entered the workforce during World War I were in some prominent cases much more productive than the experienced and trained men they replaced. But in addition, she argues that if women are paid less than men, there will always be a harsh conflict between male workers who will be correct to fear being undercut by lower-wage femail workers. Fawcett begins with a story:

"John Jones earned good wages from a firm of outfitters by braiding military tunics. He fell ill and was allowed by the firm to continue his work in his own home. He taught his wife his trade, and as his illness became gradually more severe she did more and more of the work until presently she did it all. But as long as he lived it was taken to the firm as his work and paid for accordingly. When, however, it became quite clear, John Jones being dead and buried, that it could not be his work, Mrs. John Jones was obliged to own that it was hers, and the price paid for it by the firm was immediately reduced to two-thirds of the amount paid when it was supposed to be her husband's. ...

"[T]he tremendously depressing effect on women's wages of the pre-war trade union rules, combined with social use and wont, which kept women out of nearly all the skilled industries. This policy obviously cut off a great volume of the demand for women's labour which would exist if these barriers could be broken down. It it quite true to say that, although the doctrine of demand and supply has fallen of late years into unpopularity, it is nevertheless a fact that if demand for a particular class of labour is either destroyed or very much restricted, "a downward pull " on wages is called into existence for the whole class. ... The unskilled trades open to them would be overcrowded, and competition among the workers might well force down wages to less than subsistence level. It had done so in the case of large masses of women before the war. ... [T]he Committee of the Queen's Work for Women Fund, started at the beginning of the war, reported that "many working women are normally in receipt of wages below subsistence level." The evil effects of such a state of things can hardly be exaggerated. It means physical degeneracy, not for one sex only, premature old age for women, impossibility of organising women's labour, the stamping out of any intelligent effort to acquire industrial training and a high degree of industrial efficiency. ...

"I may quote Sir William Beardmore, the well-known engineer, and President in 1916 of the Iron and Steel Institute. In his presidential address he spoke of the difficulty met with by employers in induLcing workmen to utilise to the best advantage improved methods of manufacture evolved by experimental research; he said: "Early in the war it was found at Parkhead forge that the output from the respective machines was not so great as what the machines were designed for, and one of the workers was induced to do his best to obtain the most out of a machine. He very greatly increased his output, notwithstanding his predilection for trade union restrictions. When it was found that the demands of the Government for a greatly accelerated production of shells required the employment of girls in the projectile factory, owing to the scarcity of skilled workers, these girls in all cases produced more than double that by thoroughly trained mechanics--members of trade unions--working the same machines under the same conditions. In the turning of the shell body the actual output by girls, with the same machines and working under the same conditions and for an equal number of hours, was quite double that by trained mechanics. In the boring of shells the output also was quite double, and in the curving, waving, and finishing of shell cases quite 120 per cent. more than that of experienced mechanics " (Manchester Guardian, May 16th, 1916).  Here, therefore, you have a case in which women's work excelled men's work in productiveness by two to one or more. I always take care when I am speaking to women on this subject to warn them not to run away with the idea that either physically or mentally they excel men. What these figures do show is some part of the extent to which the whole atmosphere in which industry was carried on in this country before the war led to the deliberate restriction of output by the male workers. ... 

"If, for instance, owing to a lower degree of physical strength it was found necessary to employ three women to do the work ordinarily done by two men, then the wages for the three women could reasonably be adjusted to balance this disadvantage. War experience, however, has stiffened the conviction of many feminists that a large proportion of supposed feminine disadvantages exist more in imagination than in reality. That a woman in the textile trade was paid at a lower rate than a man for the same work has, for instance, been accounted for, time out of mind, by saying that a woman was incapable of "tuning" or "setting" her machine. Very few of those who used this formula took the trouble to explain that women were never given the opportunity of learning how to tune or set a machine. It was looked upon as a law of nature that a man could set a machine and that a woman could not. ...

"I do not claim in all cases identical wages for men and women. If the men are worth more let them receive more, or if the women are worth more (as they were in the Parkhead forge) let them receive more. The one chance of women being received into industry by the men already employed as comrades and fellow-workers, not as enemies and blacklegs, is in their standing for the principle, equal pay for equal work, or, as it is sometimes expressed, equal pay for equal results. ...

"The advocates of the principle of equal pay for equal work have an encouraging precedent in the successful stand which women doctors have made from the outset that they would not undersell the men in the profession. Whether as physicians or surgeons they have been quite determined on this point. Medical women working for the War Office since 1914 did not secure this position without a struggle, but I understand that the controversy is now settled in a satisfactory manner.

I will not try to break down these diverging views in any detail. But I am struck that a number of the issues that are touched upon here continue to resonate.

For example, in a number of ways the United States is still grappling with Rathbone's question of how to support the children of low-income families, especially when parents work little or not at all. Of course, for many low-income families with children, there is only a single parent and the assumption that a man's wage will be needed to support a wife and family is anachronistic.

There is an ongoing dispute over the extent to which the remaining male/female wage gap arises because a greater number of women have careers that are either interrupted, or in which they cannot put in long hours to get fully established, because of parenting responsibilities (for example, see here and here).

The US economy is also struggling with an issue described by Fawcett in which groups try to set up rules that limit workers from competing with them, although in the modern US economy these issues arise less often in the context of unions, which are now quite small in size, and more in the context of rules about occupational licensing

A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.

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  • Robert Gray

    Insightful read

  • Paul Gill

    Good article, thanks for sharing

  • Natan Santos

    Another great article.

  • Daniela Moraïs

    Amazing article !!!

  • Brian Westwood

    Interesting piece !

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Guru

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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