It may be easy to forget that black women still make 63 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man makes. Latinas make about 54 cents on that same dollar. But if there’s anything that the history of working women of color in the United States has taught us, it’s that we’ll fight until we’ve earned every cent we deserve. Follow the trails blazed by the incredible women in the timeline below and proclaim your value loud and proud.
20 women working as laundresses in Atlanta establish The Washing Society, an early union. After launching a strike to demand higher wages, their ranks quickly rose to 3,000. Domestic work like that of the laundresses was by far the most common type of employment for local black women in this period shortly after the Civil War. The Washing Society successfully established a standard citywide rate for their work, and their strike, the first of its size and scope by black women in the US, demonstrated the organizing power of black working women as well as their economic influence.
The National Association of Colored Women is established in Washington, D.C., with the aim of uplifting disenfranchised and underprivileged members of the black community. Founders of the NACW included black history superstars like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and the organization’s first president, Mary Church Terrell. Terrell, was one of the first black women to earn a college degree in the United States — she graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 and later earned a master’s degree from there in 1888. As the leader of NACW, she pushed for employment training and pay equity for black Americans.
The Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union whose members were nicknamed the Wobblies, is founded in Chicago. Among the founders was Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, a woman of mixed African American, Mexican American, and Native American heritage who gained a lasting reputation as an anarchist and a fierce advocate for workers’ rights.
Emma Tenayuca, a labor rights activist from San Antonio, leads the largest strike in the city’s history. Tenayuca, who served in several local chapters of the advocacy group The Workers Alliance, organized a massive walkout of female employees of the Southern Pecan Shelling Company. The company had made plans to cut wages of the workers, who were overwhelmingly Mexican and female, by about 20 percent. This announcement came despite the already low wages and brutal factory conditions endured by the workers. In the face of backlash ranging from bad press to tear gas and threat of arrest, Tenayuca and the pecan workers persisted with the strike, and the company eventually agreed to pay their workers a recently-mandated minimum wage.
Luisa Moreno, a seamstress-turned-labor organizer, founded El Congreso del Pueblos de Habla Española (The Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples) in Los Angeles. Moreno, who was born to a wealthy family of coffee cultivators in Guatemala, moved to New York in 1928 and started a career in activism after being beaten by police during a strike. She became a dedicated champion of labor rights, and throughout her life organized and negotiated better conditions for workers across the country: At the New York City sweatshop where she worked as a seamstress, at cigar factories in Florida, and at food processing facilities in California, to name a few. The National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples unified Latinos from diverse backgrounds and origins unlike any US organization that came before it.
The Fair Employment Practices Committee is established after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs an executive order. A precursor to the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, the FEPC made discrimination on the basis of race illegal in any defense or government industry. The Committee had the authority to investigate discrimination complaints, and was a response to pressure from civil rights organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (co-founded by labor rights activist Rosina Tucker) and the National Council of Negro Women (founded by civil rights heroine Mary McLeod Bethune).
Sue Cowan Williams, a teacher at Dunbar High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the lead plaintiff in Morris vs. Williams, a class action lawsuit alleging unequal pay between black and white teachers in the Little Rock School District. At the time, white high school teachers in the district were taking home about 50% more on average than their black counterparts. After seeking assistance from a legal advisory team that included Thurgood Marshall, Williams and the other plaintiffs went to trial in 1943. The court ruled against Williams and her co-plaintiffs, but she won an appeal in 1945. The legal battle cost her the job: In 1943, the district did not renew her contract, but she was rehired in 1952, and she resumed her teaching post at Dunbar until her retirement in 1974.
Velma Hopkins, a tobacco stemmer at Winston-Salem, North Carolina tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, helps organize a walkout and strike to protest harsh working conditions (a fellow employee had been killed on the job) and pay inequity (Hopkins earned 83 cents to her male coworker’s dollar). Hopkins’ efforts united more than 10,000 picketers — a significant portion of them female — across racial lines, and the resulting union, Local 22, successfully negotiated for higher pay and a safer workplace.
Septima Poinsette Clark, a public school teacher in Charleston, South Carolina, is fired by the school board due to her membership in the NAACP, which was not permitted by state law. This firing came after Clark had orchestrated a protest that allowed black teachers to have positions at Charleston public schools (segregation laws barred black teachers from positions in the city school system until 1920). Clark continued to advocate for equal pay across racial lines in the school system with the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, and worked as the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1961 to 1970. After retiring from the SCLC, she successfully secured her pension and back pay from the teaching years she lost after her firing.
Mary Jackson becomes the first black female engineer at NASA. After working as a mathematician in the computing department at NASA, Jackson, a former teacher, was recruited to assist engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki with aeronautical experiments in a supersonic high-pressure wind tunnel. Czarnecki suggested that she might further her work by earning a promotion to engineer — a move that required graduate-level night courses only locally available at the segregated Hampton High School. Mary successfully petitioned the city to be able to take the classes, and worked as an aeronautical engineer before retiring after a 34-year career with NASA. Her story became more familiar to the public when Janelle Monae played her in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Dolores Huerta, an activist who helped to lead the Community Service Organization in Stockton, California, teams up with CSO executive director César Chávez and establishes the National Farm Workers Association (later renamed United Farm Workers). Over the next several decades, Huerta and UFW helped to advocate for agricultural workers’ rights across the US, despite facing arrests and death threats. She organized a 1965 boycott of non-union grapes, which ultimately won union representation for over 50,000 workers and paved the way for safer practices and higher pay across the industry. Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2012.
Congress passes the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a historic double-whammy for women of color. The Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy, prohibited employers from paying men and women different salaries for the same job. The Civil Rights Act, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson after JFK’s assassination, made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or sex. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. Though the fight for racial equality would continue, the passage of these two landmark laws was a boon to women of color, who were often left behind when advances were made for white women and for men of color.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg co-founds the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, with the mission of furthering legislative advancement for women, and particularly for women of color, female immigrants, and low-income women. Employment and equal pay are among the core pillars of the WRP, which still operates today.
Addie Wyatt, a reverend and one-time president of Chicago’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen union, co-founds the Coalition of Labor Union Women. The CLUW is the only national organization in the US specifically for union women, and over several decades, its leaders and members have advocated for wage equity, affirmative action, and representation for underrepresented and marginalized women.
Members of San Jose’s Local 101 chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) go on strike to protest wage disparities between female and male workers. 1,500 workers, from librarians and janitors to mechanics and clerical workers, picketed side-by-side with signs in English and Spanish. The strike was successful, and the first in US history that focused squarely on equal pay.
Bank teller Mechelle Vinson wins her Supreme Court case (Vinson vs. Meritor Savings Bank) against Meritor Savings Bank in Washington, DC, where she alleged that she was sexually harassed and raped by her supervisor, a vice president at the bank. For the first time in US history, the Court’s decision made sexual harassment a violation of federal law.
Hattie Canty, a hotel housekeeper, is elected president of the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union. Under her leadership, the union launched one of the longest strikes in American history against the New Frontier Hotel and Gambling Hall, lasting from 1991 to 1997. Canty’s efforts built solidarity within the union, and paved the way for Las Vegas hotel and casino workers to earn wages that were more than double those of workers in the same industry in other cities.
Betty Dukes, a Californian who worked as a greeter at Walmart, files a class-action lawsuit against the retail giant, alleging that it paid lower wages to female workers and favored male workers for promotions. The Court ruled 5-4 against Dukes, but her legal battle put a national spotlight on pay equity for employees of mega-corporations like Walmart. Notably, Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissented the Court’s opinion, arguing that Dukes delivered hard data which pointed to gender bias that “suffused Walmart’s corporate culture.”
New York City, under Mayor de Blasio, announces a settlement deal with Teamsters 237, a union representing safety agents who alleged pay discrimination. The 5,000 safety agents affected by the settlement, 70 percent of whom were women, were paid an average of $7,009 less than male workers in city jobs that required comparable training and had similar responsibilities. The deal collectively awarded the agents $38 million in salary reimbursement, and the city earmarked $47 million for a plan to achieve pay equity within four years. Kangela Moore, a New Yorker who was underpaid in her 22 years as a safety agent, told reporters after the settlement was announced that “Inequality will not be tolerated in New York City.”
Let these stories inspire you. Secret has been supporting women since 1956, and is advocating for equal pay for equal work. So ask for what is yours and bring us one step closer to closing the wage gap.
Rachel Mosely is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.