Select Page

Equal Pay for Equal Work

July 1899 — Industrial and Legislative Section, International Congress of Women, London, England


You will perhaps sooner see my point of view if I reverse these titles and speak of the Ethics of Wage Paying, and Equal Work for Equal Pay.

Ethics is the science of conduct. We study physical laws to find out how the material world works. We study ethical laws to find out how the social world works.

Ethics is the physics of society.

The individual acts, but the ethics of his actions lies in it relation to other people.

An absolutely and permanently isolated man can do neither right nor wrong, save in regard to his own health and comfort. Good or bad as applied to conduct is a purely social concept.

Conduct is relative to purpose.

We do well or ill according to what it is we are trying to do. And as society is visibly evolving in a certain direction, con duct is to be measured as it helps or hinders that social progress.

Society, like every living organism, depends primarily on economic processes for its maintenance and development.

These economic processes are in the hands of conscious individuals, whose conduct has immense effect upon the well or ill fame of society, and this brings us directly to the real head of this subject — the Ethics of Economics.

As the economic processes of society are for its best maintenance and development, it is comparatively easy to establish an ethical standard, and to say that such and such an economic process is good or bad according to its effect on society. And as society is composed of individuals, any economic process which injures and degrades the individual must react injuriously upon society, and is therefore wrong.
Sometimes one or more individuals must be temporarily sacrificed for the social good, and history is full of instances of this sacrifice cheerfully given, from the heroes of the battlefield to the heroes of the strike.

This is right, but if the sacrifice is too general and continuous, and the individuals concerned too numerous, then it becomes wrong.
Our system of wage earning is in its very name an evil thing.

It sets a man here in the world with the purpose of getting all he can out of whereas he here to put all he can into and he does not put in more than he takes out he might as well be dead.

To enter upon any economic relation for personal profit wrong, whether from the large greed for millions or the small greed for pence as a matter of ethics the attitude is wrong, because work really done for the benefit of society, and the desire of the worker should be to confer the most benefit.

Therefore the true ethics of wage earning to do as much and as well as one can, to be sure and earn one’s wage.

On the other hand, we consider the ethics of wage paying we find quite a different view point.

Here the employer, a factor in modern society, whose function to co-ordinate labour and to distribute wealth. He should therefore strive to so organise labour as to produce the most wealth with the least expenditure of time and strength, and to so distribute the wealth thus produced as to most profit the most individuals — that to best serve society.

This he emphatically does not do. He so organises labour as to produce wealth with the least expenditure of his own capital, and seeks by no means to distribute that wealth, but to segregate to his own private use, which is gross social sin.

In his position the ethics of wage paying should be his study, and in studying he would find opportunity for great social usefulness and virtue.
From the usual point of view, that of the wage earner, or of the theorist on wage earning, the effort at adjustment consists in the determined attempt of the producer to secure to himself ” the product of his labour ” — a social absurdity. A human creature easily produces far more than he consumes and, moreover, what he wants to consume not his own product, but an immeasurable share in the products of other people. To grudgingly produce and greedily consume retards social progress.

Again, the employer, grown ethically enthusiastic, seeks to pay each man according to his individual merits, he finds himself involved in ever-deepening intricacies, as our products become more and more co-ordinate and this difficulty in adjustment which has forced him to the utterly absurd position of treating labour as a commodity, and as dear or cheap according to “supply and demand.”

The wage system as much a makeshift, temporary, and self-destructive system, as was the feudal, the chattel slavery, or any other of our progressive steps in economic adjustment, and also as essential and natural a step as were any of these in their time. As a system its ethics really consist in a generous pro duction on the part of the worker, and a generous distribution on the part of the employer — an ethics little understood.

As a minor branch the woman’s demand for equal pay for equal work resolves itself clearly into a large determination to do equal work for equal pay not merely equal skill and industry of a given individual for a given time, but an equal grade of permanent competence and organisation. The wages of men have been raised and regulated by organised effort, and the wages of women are open to the same influence.

There moreover, a special duty laid upon women to raise the standard of their work and organise more solidly, not only for their own sakes, but because of the relation their labour bears to man’s — to the labour of the whole world. Woman as an inde pendent economic factor in society is growing more numerous and important daily, and in the present stage of industrial war fare she bears many disabilities. Not belligerent by nature and by heredity and environment, accustomed only to limited efforts for limited ends, used at once to a soft selfishness and a continual self-effacement. she is slow to recognise large social claims.

The self-interest of the employer, grinding down in dead weight upon labour, falls heaviest upon her, as what has least resistance, and her own self-interest is so purely personal that she is slow to take her place in the ranks of organised self-defence. Economists quite fail to observe the effect upon industrial evolution of this vast body of workers, who occupy so peculiar a place in society. Productive industry is the prerogative of woman ; she was the first labourer in those lines of peaceful diligence on which our civilisation grows ; but while men have passed through various stages of economic relationship, she has remained in the primitive relation of sex ownership, working alone for her immediate family, a prehistoric survival of the earliest form of labour, acting as a check to all industrial progress. She feels personally the injustice of being paid less than a man for the same work, but that personal injury does not fully convince her that it is one common to her class, and only to be removed by combination.

But while even men, with their centuries of economic experience behind them, are still so slow to grasp these great principles, we must be patient with the differently reared women, and rather note how wonderfully they have done some things, than how naturally they have failed to do others. And above all we should hail her entrance upon economic independence and social relation as bringing the largest hope of social progress. Her long restriction to solitary andpersonal labour has been the continued renewal of our narrow and shortsighted self-interest ; all men being born of women, and all women, speaking roughly, being confined to a narrow individualism. The point to be considered now not that she brings to the field of organised labour the primitive selfishness of her previous isolation, but that in leaving that isolation for ever, the last stronghold of individualism gives way, and the sense of union, of inter-dependence, of mutual love and honour, will grow among us as has never grown before.

How can we expect women to rise at once to an organised demand for equal pay for equal work, when heretofore they have been perforce content with doing all the work of which they were capable for no pay at all. The habit of working for nothing, alone, because one must, does not develop a far-seeing, self-respecting co-operative independence! I speak of those women who work at home, unpaid, unrecognised, but still labourers, and who contribute to the world the habit of submissive industry, asking nothing for itself, and caring nothing for its neighbours. Their influence, direct and transmitted, is one strong force in retarding industrial development.

How much worse is the influence of that class of women, all too large, who do not work even for their own families, even for themselves ! Who are content to be served by the labour of others, and to contribute nothing of their own to the world’s wealth! If they are in capable of any form of labour, they should be placed in asylums, where they could be maintained at less expense to those who do work. If they are capable of any form of labour, and yet fail to perform it, that is an offence against the whole working world, an offence which the public spirit of a later age will scorn and punish as deserves. The unconscious animal-like innocence with which women who “do not have to work ” live on the labour of others, consuming all they can reach, producing nothing, another strong retarding influence upon social progress. For these women are loved and admired, they are influential in that peculiar body of extra-social or sub-social spectators we so paradoxically call “society,” and worst of all, they are mothers So bred into the race the scorn of labour and the greed of gain and in men as well as women born the desire to get without giving.

The position of economic independence which opening to women to-day not merely an opportunity to ” earn one’s living,” it is the bringing forward of the last great detachment of primitive individualism into the wise and loving mutualism which our true order. In this demand for equal pay, women will at last learn to stand together, to love each other, to become socialised as well as domesticated, and when women learn this lesson they will teach and transmit to their children — will become the easy habit of the world.



Source:  Women in Industrial Life, The Transactions of the Industrial and Legislative Section of The International Congress of Women of 1899, Vol. VI., (London: T. Fisher Unwin), 1900, pp. 198-202.