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A History of Women’s Employment Rights

written by Daniel Bryant

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The month of March is a very important month: Women’s History Month, which celebrates the incredible women who have changed the world as we know it.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we have decided to review the history of women’s employment rights, the progress that has been made, and a non-exhaustive outline of your rights under federal employment laws 

If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your sex, gender, pregnancy, pay, and/or medical leave (among other categories of discrimination that we handle), you are welcome to contact either our Toledo, Ohio, or Columbus, Ohio, office to speak with an employment attorney over a free initial and confidential consultation so that you can assert your rights in the event you face discrimination from your employer.

1836: The Lowell Mill strikes

Prior to the nineteenth century, the northeastern United States’ economy was made up of self-sufficient families that raised, grew, or made what they needed and sold or traded excess products with others. Both men and women worked and raised families. Labor and tasks were divided by sex, but the work of women was vital to these families and their surrounding communities, as seen in records kept in the home

About a third of the way through the nineteenth century, the economy started to change, and the home was no longer the center of production, and so the role of women changed. The production of goods shifted to factories and machines, which needed people to run it, and women ended up making up a very large segment of the workforce, particularly in the textile industry.

Women would move away from home to live in boarding houses owned by textile manufacturers, giving them a salary and more independence than they’d ever had before.

Unfortunately, this came at the price of poor and often dangerous working conditions and sometimes at lower wages. 

This was the case for the women working at the Lowell Mill, a textile factory in Massachusetts. The “Lowell girls,” as they came to be known, banded together and went on a strike in 1834. They did not get what they asked for in 1834, but succeeded with their goals in 1836, and created the first union of working women in American history

1920: The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor established

On June 5, 1920, the Women’s Bureau was established as part of the U.S. Department of Labor, several months before women were allowed to legally vote. The Women’s Bureau was designed to “formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” 

The Women’s Bureau played an important role in many ways. The agency’s predecessor, the Woman in Industry Service, used field investigations to learn more about how women were readjusting post-World War I, which led to investigations of women’s employment in a number of states. The first investigation was carried out in Indiana, and in 31 other states afterward.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Women’s Bureau ran several studies that reviewed the working conditions of women in a wide variety of industries, such as:

  • Candy
  • Private household employment
  • Canning
  • Cotton mills
  • Spin rooms
  • Laundromats and laundries
  • Secretaries
  • Sewing
  • Tobacco
  • Enameling
  • Leather gloves
  • Shoes
  • Department stores
  • Silk dress
  • Hat-making

Other early studies included Black women workers and an investigation of how far women were allowed to take exams for federal government positions. The investigation would lead to a ruling from the Civil Service Commission, opening these exams to all sexes.

The Women’s Bureau would go on to work on the Fair Labor Standards Act, examine employment opportunities after the Second World War (opening the door for more employment opportunities in even more fields than before), and the Civil Rights Act.

The Women’s Bureau still exists to this day and continues to push for more progress and improvement for women’s rights in the workplace.

1923: Equal Rights Amendment introduced in Congress

woman discusses employment rights with lawyer

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee legal gender equality for all Americans. The ERA would be revived over 4 decades after its 1923 introduction in the late 1960s.

With feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and the U.S. Representative Bella Abzug of New York championing the ERA, the amendment received its two-thirds vote of approval in 1971. It was then approved in March 1972 by the Senate and sent to the states to ratify. 

But a conservative backlash against feminism ended up drying up support for the ERA, thus resulting in a failure to ratify the amendment by 38 states (the number for the necessary three-fourths of the states needed to ratify an Amendment). Only 30 states ratified the amendment.

On January 15, 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA with bipartisan support in both of the state’s chambers. But the ERA has long passed its ratification deadline, and on top of that, 5 states pulled out of their prior approval of the amendment.

The fate of the ERA is still hanging in the balance due in part to revived interest in the ERA and women’s activism. At this point, it is up to the federal government, courts, and Americans to push for the ERA’s ratification once more.

1938: Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is the law that gave Americans our modern-day workplace protections, such as an entitlement to the payment of minimum wages, overtime compensation when you work over 40 hours in one or more workweeks, and the federal law that governs a variety of conditions in the workplace.

Mary Anderson, the first director of the Women’s Bureau, worked to ensure that women would be protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act by including the statement “No classification shall be made under this section on the basis of age or sex.” 

Anderson was far from the only woman who worked to bring this bill to law. Other female architects and advocates of the FLSA include:

  • Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins
  • U.S. Representative Mary Norton 
  • First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

1963: Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 is a federal law that amended the Fair Labor Standards Act with the goal of ensuring equal pay for men and women. While this law is an important starting point to ensure equal pay between males and females, the gender wage gap persists despite the EPA’s passage. 

In 2020, women earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men — and that’s just white women. The gap grows wider for women of color, women in executive roles, and in certain jobs. If you believe you are not being paid equally as your male co-workers despite having the requisite qualifications, do not hesitate to contact us to go over your rights to equal pay.

1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

black women talk at work

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. We regularly advocate on behalf of individuals who have been faced with discrimination under Title VII. Importantly, Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee for opposing discrimination, even if you are not the individual who faced discrimination (i.e. reporting sexual harassment, racial slurs, among other conduct).

1978: Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make it illegal to discriminate against a pregnant employee under Title VII’s definition of “sex” discrimination. Thus, the PDA amended Title VII to include protections for pregnant employees.

1996: Equal Pay Day is created

An initiative started by the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), Equal Pay Day is a symbolic day that represents how far into the year a woman must work in order to achieve the same average earnings a man did in the previous year. The date changes every year.

March 31, 2020, was a momentous year and date for Equal Pay Day, as it was the first time ever that showed the gender pay gap is narrowing. It was also the earliest day Equal Pay Day occurred on. 

2009: Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation signed into law during the Obama Administration, overturning the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which placed tight restrictions on the time period for filing complaints of employment discrimination regarding compensation.


Despite all of the progress women and others have made on behalf of women’s rights in the workplace, there still remains a long road ahead for true equality for women in the workplace. At Bryant Legal, LLC, we strive to continue to make progress on behalf of women in all aspects of their employment.

We saw women share their stories of sexual harassment and assault, with many of them occurring in the workplace, with the advent of #MeToo. The #MeToo movement revealed how common and pervasive sexual harassment is in the workplace, which resulted in a handful of seemingly powerful men, like producer Harvey Weinstein, Today Show anchor Matt Lauer, and self-help guru Tony Robbins fall from the public’s grace. Women also feel more empowered to report instances of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other forms of discrimination in the workplace, which is how it should be in modern society.

However, very few of these public figures accused of sexual assault faced trial and/or conviction. Weinstein is a rare exception, as he was found guilty of two counts of sexual assault and jailed. As such, individuals need to be held accountable for sex discrimination and that can only be done through asserting one’s workplace rights.

There have been reports that men in the workplace go out of their way to exclude or avoid their female coworkers out of fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment, which puts women at a disadvantage in terms of promotions and equal pay. 

Even with March 31, 2020, being the most progressive year for narrowing the pay gap, the Census Bureau has found that at the current rate of progress, women won’t see equal pay until 2059

The fight for true equality in the workplace is far from over, which is why Bryant Legal, LLC is always here to protect your rights. If you have any questions about your rights as a female employee in the workplace under any of the federal or Ohio laws governing your employment, please contact us for a free and confidential phone consultation with an employment attorney.

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