Is equal pay worth it?

Beatrice Potter Webb’s, Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s and Eleanor Rathbone’s changing arguments

Authored by: Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138852341
eBook ISBN: 9781315723570
Adobe ISBN:


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In February 1918, some British women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote. This political move has been interpreted by many as a reward for women’s efforts during the First World War. 2 In August of the same year, female tramway and bus conductors in London led a successful strike against unequal war bonuses, claiming the same increase of five shillings a week as their male colleagues. The multiplication of “equal pay strikes” led the War Cabinet to set up a committee to examine the “problem” that “women in industry” constituted; the Atkin Committee was appointed in September 1918 to examine the relations between men’s and women’s wages in industry. It presented its report the next year. Part of the official inquiry was to determine whether women received a man’s rate when occupying a “man’s job” following the 1915 “Treasury Agreement” with the trade unions; and if not, why? The formula “equal pay for equal work” refers to fair conditions of work either being equal (hour or piece) rates or equal scales of payment for men and women. 3 In its historical scope, the formula refers to a burning controversy “which touches not only the pocket but the home” (Edgeworth 1922, 431). Can women perform the same jobs as men in times of emergency? Does not equal pay and women’s work destroy what was considered one of the main bases of Victorian society – the differentiation of the sexes (Vaid 1985)? Should women be paid the men’s rate when they are supposedly not supporting a family? During the First World War, these issues became framed as a question of national (and imperial) survival.

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