Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, February 27, 2005
by Susan Ives

The dishwashing job was hers, I told Margie. Minimum wage, $1.75 an hour, but they throw in breakfast and lunch. Good food: I help cook it.

The boss took some convincing. I filled in for a woman who needed summers off to be with her school-aged kids, but he wanted a dishwasher for the long haul and, like me, Margie would be going back to college in the fall.

“How long did the last man stay?” I challenged. Four days. And the one before him? A week. It’s a crummy job. The two guys you have now probably won’t last the month. If Margie stays until Labor Day she would beat the longevity record.

It’s dirty work, he added. Sweaty. Heavy lifting. Margie’s built like a tank, I assured him, the shortstop on my softball team. She got the job.

On her first payday Margie joined me at the lunch table, trembling with rage. The two male dishwashers were making $2 an hour, they bragged. She worked just as hard as they did. It’s not fair!

It’s more than unfair, I told her. It’s illegal. I was majoring in political science and knew all about the Equal Pay Act of 1963: equal pay for equal work. We’ll confront the boss and make him raise your pay.

Margie was shy. I’m not. I’ll do the talking, I assured her. The boss waffled. They’ve been at the job longer, he said. They’ve been here a month, I reminded him. Did you start them at minimum wage? Will Margie get a raise after a month? Well, no, she wouldn’t.

He eventually got to the point. They were men, he said, and obviously doing all the heavy lifting. Obviously? The dishwashers were lazy, scrawny weasels who disappeared whenever there were heavy trays to lift. Show him your muscles, Margie. Want to arm wrestle for that 25 cents an hour?

I slipped in some stuff about the Equal Pay Act, the constitutional law course I took sophomore year and, in desperation, my Uncle Otto, the lawyer.

Margie got her raise. My first, but certainly not last, confrontation with discrimination in the workplace.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. Unlike women’s history month, which is inclined to commemorate the achievements of famous women, or Mother’s Day, which honors motherhood, International Women’s Day celebrates the struggles of women in the workplace.

Women in the factories and mills. Maids, seamstresses, telemarketers, sales clerks, waitresses, teachers and nurses. Women who struggle to balance family and work obligations, women who face discrimination and harassment. Women passed over for promotion and tenure. Women who never get offered the job because “she’ll just be off having babies in a year or two.”

Women who dread a call from the school saying that their child is sick, women who spend so much on child care it’s barely worth it to work. Women who work two jobs and still can’t pay the rent.
Women like Margie who need that extra $10 a week. Women like you and me.

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, mobilizing a “sea of women,” as one observer noted, to agitate for the right to vote and be accepted as equals in the workplace. Every year since then, women have been marching, marching, marching to celebrate our triumphs and organize for the work that still remains.

Today, women earn 73 cents for every dollar a man makes. It’s like working for a month and getting paid for three weeks. It’s worse for women of color. African American women earn 64 percent of every dollar earned by white men, and Hispanic women earn 52 percent. Even when you consider differences — in work experience, education and seniority — about half of that gap remains unexplained.
Progress is slow. When the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women earned 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. The wage gap has changed at a rate of less than half a penny per year.

San Antonio women will march on March 5, starting at 10 a.m. at Elmendorf Park. I’ll be there with my sisters, showing my muscle.

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