Equal Rights Amendment Is a “Critical Legal Tool” To Achieve Equal Pay for Black Women

“We are trying to pass these major pieces of legislation: the infrastructure plan and Build Back Better, equality in the workplace, and equal pay. The ERA undergirds all of this. This basic commitment—the right to equality for women, particularly Black women, women of color—is essential.”

— Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council

California Rep. Maxine Waters believes passing the ERA is important to ensure pay equality for Black women. Waters is pictured here with Vice President Kamala Harris on June 15 announcing the release of $1.25 billion in funding for minority banks and community-based lenders. (Instagram)

To mark Equal Pay Day for Black women on August 3, the ERA Coalition hosted a town hall with some of the nation’s leading women’s rights advocates speaking about the importance of passing the ERA to ensure pay equality for Black women.

“The pay gap has been especially devastating during this pandemic,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). “Millions of families have been struggling to get food on the table, their children in school and a roof over their heads. The gender pay gap compounded with the racial wage gap has made it even more difficult for Black women.”

Employers pay Black women just 63 percent of white men’s median annual earnings—$24,110 less—for full-time year-round work in 2019, reports the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). This translates into a loss of close to one million dollars over a 40-year career.

“We need the Equal Rights Amendment to help us root out systemic discrimination,” said Waters.

August 3 is the day employers finally pay Black women the same amount of money they pay to white men just last year, on average. In other words, Black women in the United States must work 19 months in order to earn what white men to earn in a year.

“Make no mistake, Equal Pay Day is not a celebration. It’s a day to shine a spotlight on economic injustice,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.). “Imagine what we could do with an extra seven months of income each year.”

In March, Lawrence along with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who all spoke at the town hall, led a successful effort to pass a resolution to remove an arbitrary timeline for ERA ratification. Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA in January of 2020, but the Trump administration blocked the amendment’s certification, saying the timeline for ratification had expired. The resolution removing the timeline is now before the Senate, but a Republican filibuster is blocking a vote on the measure.

“Our vote earlier this year was a huge step toward ratifying the ERA, ensuring that men and women are treated equally under the law and eliminating the wage gap for Black women and all women of color,” said Lawrence.

Louisiana trails the nation, with employers paying Black women just 48 cents for every dollar they paid to white men on average, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Even with similar educational levels, the wage gap persists: Black women with a bachelor’s degree earn only 62.5 percent of what BA-educated white men earn.

The Uphill Battle for Pay Parity

Progress toward equality is painfully slow, reports the NWLC. The racial gender wage gap between Black women and white men did not narrow substantially over the last decade. At current rates, Black women won’t reach pay equity with white men in U.S. until 2133.

“When we look over the last 30 years, we know that for Black women, we have only closed the pay gap by a penny,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of National Women’s Law Center. “Black women would have to work until they’re 83 years old, to be paid what a white non-Hispanic man is paid by the time he reaches the age of 60. Those multiple decades of work of labor and that hardship on them and their families must be corrected. And that is going to require us shifting the culture that surrounds us. It’s going to require our institutions changing. But it’s also going to require a major shift in our laws and policies. A key part of that shift is finally, finally, finally having the Equal Rights Amendment as a part of our foundational document—in our Constitution that guides our laws and our policy.”

An ERA demonstration on July 9, 1978. (Bettye Lane / Schlesinger Library)

In addition to employers discriminating against Black women by paying them less than coworkers for similar work, other factors contributing to the wage gap include employers being less likely to hire Black women for professional and managerial jobs and more likely to undervalue their labor in care and service jobs, as well as employers refusing to offer work-family supports such as paid family leave, reports IWPR.

How to Close the Racial and Gender Pay Gap

IWPR recommends several strategies to address the racial gender wage gap, including policies to ensure fair pay for care work and essential service jobs, better access for Black women to good-paying trade and technical jobs, policies to address and prevent race and sex discrimination on the job, and ensuring all workers have access to living wages, paid leave, and quality, affordable child and elder care, including during training and education.

“Right now we are trying to pass these major pieces of legislation in the form of the infrastructure plan and build back better, equality in the workplace, and equal pay,” said Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council. “The ERA undergirds all of this. This basic commitment—the right to equality for women, particularly Black women, women of color—is essential. That’s an unbreakable principle.”

The ERA Coalition town hall included comments by many influential people who believe ratifying the ERA holds the answer to permanently closing the racial and gender pay gap, including:

  • Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People
  • Monifa Bandele, chief operating officer of TIME’S UP
  • Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Convener, Black Women’s Roundtable
  • Beverly Smith, national president & CEO of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

“The Equal Rights Amendment creates a critical legal tool to combat the discrimination women face each and every single day, especially women of color,” said Lee.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the Chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.