[Chapter 05] Holding Up Half the Sky: The Rights of Women

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, an Irish immigrant and teacher, Kate Kennedy, launched a lobbying campaign for "equal pay for equal work." Her efforts were partially successful when the state legislature adopted an 1874 law that mandated, "Females employed as teachers in the public schools of this state shall in all cases receive the same compensation as is allowed male teachers for like services."

At the time--and for many decades following--teaching was one of few professions open to women in California. Half of all teachers in Los Angeles in the 1870s were women, but before the 1874 law, their pay was less than that of their male colleagues.

California's First Women Lawyers

Clara Shortridge FoltzClara Shortridge FoltzWomen in other professions soon followed Kennedy's lead. In 1878 Laura de Force Gordon and suffragist Clara Shortridge Foltz convinced the legislature to repeal the law that denied women admission to the bar. Foltz wrote, "The bill met with a storm of opposition such as had never been witnessed on the floor of the California senate. Narrow gauge statesmen grew as red as turkey gobblers mouthing their ignorance against the bill." The bill passed by two votes, and Gordon and Foltz became the first female practicing lawyers in California. And in 1890, the San Francisco Medical Society admitted its first woman member, Dr. Lucy Maria Field Wanzer.

Amending the Constitution for Equal Rights

The most enduring change occurred in 1879, when newly minted attorneys Foltz and Gordon drafted a constitutional revision that was adopted by the state constitutional convention. Article XX, Section 18, of the 1879 constitution stated, "No person shall, on account of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation or profession." [The article was amended in 1970 and changed to Article 1, Section 8, which reads, "A person may not be disqualified from entering or pursuing a business, profession, vocation, or employment because of sex, race, creed, color, or national or ethnic origin."]

Testing the New Amendment

That section of the 1879 constitution was the basis for an important sex discrimination case just two years later. In 1881 waitress Mary Maguire was arrested for violating a San Francisco ordinance that prohibited women from "waiting on persons in a barroom from 6 PM to 6 AM in which liquor was sold." Maguire filed a writ of habeas corpus so that she could get out of jail, and the court granted her request stating that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it impermissibly disqualified women from pursuing a business that was lawful for men. The city argued that the law was necessary to protect against immorality. But the court ruled that the new constitutional provision did not contain any exceptions.

The court ordered Maguire released and struck down the ordinance, stating, "The language of the ordinance is plain, and its meaning unmistakable. It leaves nothing for construction. The words employed in this ordinance incapacitate a woman from following the business for which the petitioner was fined and disable her from doing so.…Such legislation could only be considered an evasion of the Constitutional provision."

Despite the state constitution, women still faced fierce discrimination in many professions. When attempts were made to extend the equal pay argument beyond the professions, a 1911 Senate Report on Women in Industry declared the "natural inferiority of women" was the reason they were paid less.

Fighting for a Minimum Wage for Women

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report documenting that a third of women workers were paid less than fifteen cents an hour catalyzed an energetic movement for a minimum wage for women and children. Katherine Philips Edson of Los Angeles, president of the California Federation of Women's Clubs, campaigned around the state for a change in the law. Meanwhile, women workers took the protest to the streets. In 1901 several hundred waitresses demanding higher wages went on a bitter strike that shut down almost two hundred San Francisco restaurants. In 1907 women laundry workers and assembly line workers at the Ghirardelli chocolate factory went on strike for better pay and an end to dangerous and unsanitary working conditions. In 1919 thirteen hundred women telephone operators struck for the right to bargain collectively.

At first, organized labor opposed the minimum wage legislation, fearing that government regulation would undermine their strength of collective bargaining. Under pressure from women workers, they changed their stance. In 1911, in the same election that brought the victory for women's suffrage, a law was adopted limiting the workday for women to eight hours (excluding labor on farms and in agricultural packing sheds). In 1913 the minimum wage law was passed.

Despite this enthusiasm, and the codification of sex equality in the California constitution, the state legislature, Congress, and the courts remained silent on women's rights for decades to come. But an astonishing experiment during World War II was to plant the seeds for a major change.

Read more chapter excerpts »

Share this
Keywords: