Today in Feminist History: It’s Time for Women to Make Real Living Wages (April 3, 1920)

April 3, 1920: Over 88% of New York State’s women earn less than the $16.13 a week—the minimum income needed to cover basic living costs.

PHOTO: A $20 Double Eagle, equal to a weekly salary earned by only 5% of the women in the recent survey.

Seventy-one percent receive less than $14 a week, while only 11.6% get $16 a week or more.

Less than 5% earn $20 a week or more.

These facts were contained in a report made public today by the Consumers League of New York entitled “Women’s Wages Today.”

The group surveyed 500 women in various locations around the State and came up with a number of findings.

Though they were distributed across a variety of industries, the largest group of women workers, 23%, were saleswomen or cashiers in department stores, with the clothing industry coming in second at 17%.

They found that most of the women worked 48 to 54 hours a week, though 5% worked more than 54 hours, while 6% worked less than 44 hours, with most of those being clerical workers. 

There is a popular notion that women work for ‘pin money,’ and therefore should be paid less than men, but this was not supported by the data.

Of the 500 women surveyed, 377 (75.4%) contributed their entire wages or a large part of them to the family income.

Fifteen percent did not live at home and were entirely dependent upon their own incomes.

Of this group, ten received $8 a week, twenty-one got $10, eleven received $11 a week, seventeen got $12, seven earned $13, and ten got $15 a week. 

Though some might assume that low wages must be a reflection of youth and inexperience, this was not shown to be the case. Only 26.8% of those surveyed were under the age of 18.

Even among those over 30, a majority earned $14 a week or less.

Wages have not even been keeping pace with inflation. In 1919, 39% of women reported no increase in pay at all, and there were few cases where wages kept up with the 14.5% increase in prices last year. 

The gap between what women are paid and what they need results in undernourishment, unpaid bills, clothes bought on the installment plan, extra work at night or the acceptance of charity, according to the Consumers League.

It is because of facts like those presented today that it is calling for the establishment of a State Minimum Wage Commission. 


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.