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Historical Highlights

An Appropriations Amendment Prohibiting Gender Discrimination

June 11, 1870
An Appropriations Amendment Prohibiting Gender Discrimination Image courtesy of Library of Congress This image features three women clerks at work at the headquarters of the National Womans Party in Washington, D.C.
On this date, the House narrowly passed an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibiting gender discrimination in the compensation of clerks hired by the federal government. Under the prior law, female clerks earned less than half the salary of similarly employed men. The final passage of the amendment, as well as an "amendment to the amendment," (78 to 74, with 78 Members abstaining) reflected the contentious debate surrounding the measure. In February, Samuel Arnell of Tennessee first suggested that female clerks be paid an equal wage; the House rejected his and similar amendments amid sarcastic barbs and jeers. Representative Anthony Rogers of Arkansas objected to “these ladies running about the streets and lobbying with members to get their salaries raised every session of Congress,” predicting that “the upshot of it . . . will finally place the whole administration of the Government under female management.” Representative John Farnsworth of Illinois argued in favor of equal pay, saying “it is unworthy the manhood of this House and the spirit of the age” to pay women lower wages. He also noted that many working women were Civil War widows whose wages were their only means of support. The Senate eventually amended the bill to include an equal pay clause. When the measure returned to the House, the Appropriations Committee recommended the Senate amendment; however, the committee effectively weakened it by offering substitute language promising the equal wages only to future employees and by freezing the number of clerkships on the payroll. The compromise garnered support from Members originally concerned about the additional cost of the pay raises, tipping the scale in the close vote. Supporters were optimistic about the amendment’s future effect. “What we call civilization from age to age has brought to man wider freedom, yet has but little relaxed the iron subjugation of woman,” Arnell intoned. “I see in the removal of this disability immediate reform in our social life.”

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