Jessica Ziparo: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Equal Pay

Jessica Ziparo, This Grand ExperimentToday we welcome a guest post from Jessica Ziparo, author of This Grand Experiment:  When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War–Era Washington, D.C., looking back on the first debates about equal pay for equal work.

In the volatility of the Civil War, the federal government opened its payrolls to women. Thousands of female applicants from across the country flooded Washington with applications. In This Grand Experiment, Jessica Ziparo traces the struggles and triumphs of early female federal employees, who were caught between traditional, cultural notions of female dependence and an evolving movement of female autonomy in a new economic reality. In doing so, Ziparo demonstrates how these women challenged societal gender norms, carved out a place for independent women in the streets of Washington, and sometimes clashed with the female suffrage movement.

This Grand Experiment will be available in in November, but you can pre-order both print and e-book editions today.


One Hundred and Fifty Years of Equal Pay

On January 21, 2017, I was one of the five million people around the world to come together for the Women’s March, the largest coordinated protest in U.S. history. As I walked the streets of Chicago, shoulder-to-shoulder with a diverse and energized crowd carrying clever signs decorated with colorful art and language, I could not help but think of the female federal employees of the Civil War era and the battles they fought which allowed women like me to be on the streets that January day. What was most striking were the similarities between what they were trying to achieve in the 1860s and what we still are seeking in 2017. Among the “Values and Principles” articulated by the organizers of the Women’s March is: “We believe in equal pay for equal work and the right of all women to be paid equitably. We must end the pay and hiring discrimination that women… still face each day in our nation.” This equal pay fight has an anniversary this year: Congress began debating equal pay for women 150 years ago in 1867.

In the spring of 1866, fifty-nine female Treasury Department employees petitioned Congress to raise their wages. Theirs was not the only petition from women asking for higher salaries—hundreds of women from the Government Printing Office, Post Office, Interior, Treasury, and War Departments signed petitions asking for higher wages. The fifty-nine Treasury Department employees noted that the “labors and duties [of the male employees] are identical with our own and [their] home responsibilities in most instances are not so great.” Yet the women were paid far less for the same work. In 1866, female federal clerks earned $720 per year. The salaries of male clerks ranged from $1,200 to $1,800. The women of the Treasury demanded to know: “What makes us to differ from them?”

The Senate began debating equal pay in 1867 because there was a question about whether female federal employees would receive a 20% bonus that male federal employees were going to earn as a cost of living increase. Although the question in the 1867 debate was only whether or not to give the women the 20% bonus, some senators began to push their colleagues to reward equal work with equal pay. Senator John Conness of California tried to convince his fellow senators that paying women less for doing identical work was indefensible: “If it were proposed in this body that a day’s labor in any of the Departments when performed by a man should consist of seven hours and the day’s labor performed by a woman should consist of ten hours, I apprehend that it would not receive the Senator’s vote; and yet you calmly advocate just as much disparity as that would be. While you admit that the value of the services of the female are equal to those of the male, you propose to give her less compensation. I do not understand the justice of such proceeding.”

“Now, sir, let an example go out from the American Congress that labor performed by every one shall have its fair reward, and that there shall be perfect equality between all American citizens, without reference to color, race, or sex.”

Illinois Senator Richard Yates, a friend of the female suffrage movement, vociferously advocated for equal pay for women. His vision for America is in some respects the same vision that the Women’s March is still seeking to achieve. “I should like to see the American Congress establish the principle that labor by whomsoever performed, by man or woman, shall have its fair reward, and that female industry, female worth, perseverance, fidelity, and faithfulness in the public service shall have the same compensation as similar qualities exhibited by males,” Yates said in February 1867. He continued: “Women have been debarred the emoluments of labor long enough. Odious and unjust discrimination have been made against female labor long enough. Now, sir, let an example go out from the American Congress that labor performed by every one shall have its fair reward, and that there shall be perfect equality between all American citizens, without reference to color, race, or sex.”

The women of the federal departments received the 20% bonus that year. The equal pay debate, however, was just beginning. In two additional debates in the Senate and one in the House, congressmen wrangled over whether to provide equal pay to female employees for performing the same work as men. In This Grand Experiment, I explore these four debates and consider the intersection of the equal pay debates and the female suffrage movement. The equal pay movement of the 1860s came surprisingly close to succeeding. In fact, both houses passed legislation equalizing wages between men and women. Yet the movement failed. Had it succeeded, perhaps women would not have had to march in January 2017.


To learn more about the Woman’s March, visit their website at To learn more about the present day wage gap, including how women of color are disproportionately affected, visit the National Women’s Law Center page on Equal Pay and the Wage Gap at, the American Civil Liberties Union “Equal Pay” page at, and the National Organization of Women’s “Women Deserve Equal Pay” at


Jessica Ziparo earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and her J.D. from Harvard Law School.