Today in Feminist History: Sounding Off on Equal Pay to New York City’s Board of Education

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 18, 1907: Early this evening, 10 eloquent speakers addressed the New York City Board of Education’s Committee on Legislation and denounced the practice of paying women teachers less than men.

Two hundred members of the Interborough Association of Women Teachers and the Society of Women Class Teachers of Brooklyn were present as well, to lend their support to those who presented the case in favor of equal pay for equal work. 

Grace Strahan was in charge of the presentation, and began by saying that she would like to see the word “female” removed from all legislation relating to teachers, because it inevitably means lower pay for women. She then produced precise figures to prove her case.

In elementary school, the starting pay for women teachers is $600 a year, with salary increases of $40 a year up to a maximum of $1,240. Men who teach the same grades start at $900 a year, with an annual increase of $105 until they reach their maximum salary of $2,160. Even women who teach classes composed solely of boys get a bonus of only $60 a year over their regular pay, so there is no way for them to catch up with the men, even when they are doing absolutely identical jobs.

Strahan said that salaries should be based on the nature of the work, not the sex of the worker, and on satisfactory performance. She noted that the practice of dual salary scales based on sex has long been discarded in other city jobs, and that the only city workers who earn salaries comparable to female teachers are scrubwomen. 

Lina E. Gano, who teaches at Wadleigh High School for Girls, the first public school in the city to have an all-female student body, gave another excellent presentation. She began by answering some of the objections people have voiced about women seeking employment. Gano said that women were not “attacking the integrity of the home” or “forcing themselves into the sphere occupied by men” when they get jobs.

Gano said that there are many reasons why women work outside the home, and some women will always be pushed into the workforce by circumstances. For instance, single women, such as herself, should not be penalized for simply trying to support themselves: “All men do not marry. We are, many of us, aware of that. We wish they would, but they don’t.” (These statements caused one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night, though only from the women, not the confirmed bachelors in the room who may have felt a bit uncomfortable when unexpectedly brought up in the discussion.)

Married or single, women are now an integral part of the economy, according to Gano. But while women are discriminated against in pay, they have always had full equality in regard to prices and taxes: “Now, you don’t find that street car companies make a reduction in fare to women… The renters of houses don’t give a rebate to women when one leases a house. And yet in the City of New York the women school teachers are paid hundreds of dollars less in a year than are men.”

She concluded her presentation by attacking the objection that giving women equal salaries was not customary: “Well, dressing in skins and living in caves was once the custom. Customs change, and the custom of underpaying women for the work they do in an open market will change also.”

Needless to say, this prediction was accompanied by another round of cheers. 

Sarah McCaffrey, principal of P.S. 116, reminded the committee members of another reason why the plight of women teachers needs immediate attention. Even the meager salary of $600 a year doesn’t buy what it used to due to inflation.

Despite their well-stated plea, the probability of women teachers getting equal pay in the immediate future is not high. Robert L. Harrison, speaking on behalf of the Legislation Committee, may have actually given an insight into the committee’s thoughts and plans. After the meeting he said that the committee members would give the matter of equal salaries “deep thought” and that if it was found to be impossible to come up with the five million dollars needed to raise the pay of the women up to that of the men, this failure would cause the committee “deep anguish.”

Though this particular battle may continue for a while, the fact that women around the country are now organizing for equality in everything from voting rights to salaries means that victory in all these areas should be achieved at some point in this new, more progressive century.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.