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A Woman's Wage

Historical Meanings and Social Consequences

Alice Kessler-Harris

Publication Year: 2014

In this updated edition of a pathbreaking classic, Alice Kessler-Harris explores the meanings of women's wages in the United States in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, focusing on three issues that capture the transformation of women's roles: the battle over minimum wage for women, which exposes the relationship between family ideology and workplace demands; the argument concerning equal pay for equal work, which challenges gendered patterns of self-esteem and social organization; and the debate over comparable worth, which seeks to incorporate traditionally female values into new work and family trajectories. Together, these topics and social organization; and the debate over comparable worth, which seeks to incorporate traditionally female values into new work and family trajectories. Together, these topics illuminate the many ways in which gendered social roles have been produced, transmitted, and challenged.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Blazer Lectures

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

The challenge to undertake a fundamental examination and reappraisal of our institutions, culture, and values prompted the establishment of the Blazer Lecture Series. This series, supported since 1949 by the Paul G. and Georgia M. Blazer Fund, has provided students and faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of...

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pp. 1-6

A “woman’s wage” is a phrase with particular resonance in the modern period. As women struggle to achieve equality in the labor market, the wages that measure their progress creep frustratingly slowly toward the goal of parity with those of men. At the same time, traditional labor market ideology suggests that wage differentials reflect the choices of...

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1. The Wage Conceived: Value and Need as Measures of a Woman’s Worth

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pp. 7-30

In 1915 New York State’s Factory Investigating Commission asked some seventy-five prominent individuals—economists, social reformers, businessmen, and publicists among them—what factors determined the rate of wages. The answers varied. Some suggested that workers’ organizations were most important; others believed the size...

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2. Law and a Living: The Gendered Content of “Free Labor” in the Progressive Period

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pp. 31-52

Supreme Court decisions are frequently unpopular. Yet few have faced the storm of national derision that confronted the April 1923 opinion handed down in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. By a vote of 5 to 3 (Brandeis abstaining), the Court negated the constitutionality of a Washington, D.C., law that provided minimum wages for women and...

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3. Providers: An Exploration of Gender Ideology in the 1930s

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pp. 53-74

On May 10, 1933, Earl Leiby of Akron, Ohio, wrote to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States:

You are probably aware of the fact that homes are being wrecked daily due to the fact that married women are permitted to work in factories and offices in this land of ours. You and we all know that the place for a...

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4. The Double Meaning of Equal Pay

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pp. 75-104

As the Equal Pay Bill came up for its final votes in the spring of 1963, the two sides squared off once again. The bill, which would prohibit differential wages for women doing “equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions,” seemed destined...

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5. The Just Price, the Free Market, and the Value of Women

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pp. 105-120

For feminist historians the 1980s could be described in the words with which Charles Dickens introduced A Tale of Two Cities: they were the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the creative outpouring of historical scholarship on women became a source of energy and of continuing pressure for change. In the absence of a mass...

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6. A Woman's Wage, Redux

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pp. 121-142

A woman’s wage, as the essays in this book demonstrate, has historically been linked to the values associated with traditional family life and the related tasks assigned to men and women. Typically perceived as a reward for individual effort, the wage is associated with the market. But the wage has a largely invisible social component as well, one that is...

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pp. 143-144

This book originated as the University of Kentucky Blazer Lectures in April 1988. I am grateful to Nancy Schrom Dye and her colleagues in the History Department and at the university for inviting me to do the lectures, and for their generous hospitality during my stay in Lexington. I also want to thank the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians...


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pp. 145-176


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pp. 177-186

E-ISBN-13: 9780813145402
E-ISBN-10: 0813145406
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813145136

Page Count: 196
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: updated edition
Series Title: Blazer Lectures