In 1928, Florence St. John joined 30 other women in the sheet metal department at the Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan. She certainly had no idea that she would become a pioneer in the struggle for equal pay for women, and her story is told in the October 2022 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It is a riveting true story, and several of its elements will seem familiar to those who have paid attention to women’s ongoing quest for equal pay.
- Women in the factory did the same work as men, and it was heavy and technically demanding work. But they were paid less.
- Women only found out about the pay disparity by chance. The workers played a game called “check pool” with their paychecks, revealing the amount, and the women noticed that men with similar jobs made more money.
- Sympathetic men provided essential support when, in 1936, the women started their quest to close the pay gap. The first was Forrest Brown, a union representative who took a position with the Michigan Department of Labor and started to investigate the factory. Later, in 1938, the women secured representation by Bernard Pierce and Joseph Planck, attorneys in Lansing. Their case was based on an obscure Michigan law that made it a misdemeanor to “discriminate in any way in the payment of wages as between sexes.” This law had never been enforced before.
- The company, General Motors (GM) tried everything they could to escape having to pay the women equally for equal work. First, they moved the women to a newly created “women’s division” where they were supposed to do less demanding work. But the women were still making some of the heavy parts they had made before. Next GM tried to attack the constitutionality of the Michigan equal pay law. Then they tried to deny that women were doing the same work as men, but a foreman testified that women did in fact do heavy work. They brought forth a parade of witnesses to testify to the superior strength and ability of men. Finally, GM tried to claim that women were not paid less, but their lawyers forced GM to bring in the damning payroll records
- The trial in 1941 was lengthy and was followed by three years of GM appeals. Finally, the women were awarded $55,690 in back pay. By that time two women in the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau had used St. John’s case to convince the War Labor Board to equalize pay rates between men and women.
Several factors made this lawsuit successful: the Michigan equal pay law, the fact that it was also a pioneering class action suit, and of course the determination of the women and their attorneys. As stunning as it is, this successful lawsuit was only recently brought to light by David Engstrom, a scholar tracing the history of class action suits. Engstrom wrote that it was “almost certainly the first significant damages payout in a job discrimination case in the case history of U.S. law.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Florence St. John, who died in 1970, could have known that the CEO of GM today is a woman, Mary Barra?