Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Leeds Postcards
Low Pay / Sex Difference شاهدي شاشة أكبر >

Oh, That Explains the Difference? or Why is Equal Pay for Equal Work so hard to translate into reality?

Women’s demands for equal pay for equal work are as old as history. European societies provide abundant documentation of such claims. Why? Because male authorities decreed that women who worked for pay should only receive one-half to two-thirds the pay of men. This was long before the "male-breadwinner model" began to be explicitly laid out.

Already in the year 1348, municipal authorities in Marseille set the wages for workers: 4 sous a day for men and 2 sous 6 deniers for women. [Such laws also dictated what women could or couldn’t wear in the way of gold, silver, and jewelry].

Flash forward! In 1869, in the first issue of Le Droit des Femmes, the feminist Maria Deraismes claimed equal pay as one of the objectives for the French women’s rights movement, a claim that would be repeated incessantly for the next 75 years.

When the Swiss women’s rights publication Le Mouvement féministe first appeared in Geneva in 1912, its motto was “A travail égal, salaire égal.” In translation: “for equal work, equal pay.” There was nothing hard to understand about this demand.

The Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I, founded the International Labour Organization and contained a proviso guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. All signatories to the Treaty promised to support this proviso, among many others.

In France, the principle of equal pay for equal work was finally instituted in 1946, by the decree of 30 July 1946. Other European countries have also agreed, at least in theory, to this principle. But enforcing it has been another story.

At the United Nations in March 1948, the Economic and Social Council approved “the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value for men and women workers.”

In December 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that the principle of equal pay for equal work be included in Article 23.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. “Everyone without any discriminhation, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

In 1986 The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on the role of women in society, in which (among other provisions) it invited member states “to encourage such social and economic development as will ensure the equal participation of women in all spheres of work activity, equal pay for work of equal value, and equal opportunities for education and vocational training.”

So why are American women today still having to demand equal pay for equal work? Why in 2011 do we need to designate a day (April 12, 2011) as Equal Pay Day?

Clio would like your ideas: Why is it taking so long to write Equal Pay into the laws of the United States? Why in other countries, even when equal pay for equal work is mandated by law, is it so difficult to enforce this law? What are the obstacles that stand in the way of this eminently fair demand?

publisher: Cornell University Press
book cover She Was One of Us شاهدي شاشة أكبر >

Eleanor Roosevelt and America’s Working Women

Clio attended a book party last weekend for a long-time author-colleague and friend. The book is called “She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker,” and the author is Brigid O’Farrell, a sociologista and political activist who “backed into history” in order to understand how certain developments came about concerning women’s employment.

Brigid discovered that in all the many publications concerning Eleanor Roosevelt (ER, 1888-1962, first lady of the US from 1933 to 1945, thanks to her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s nearly four full terms as president), she found virtually no information about Mrs. Roosevelt’s relationship with the labor movement, which began with issues facing women in the workforce.

She decided to do something about eliminating that gap in our knowledge. This book is the happy result of her research.

Our author learned that Eleanor Roosevelt was extremely engaged in addressing the plight of working women in particular, and tried to do many things to assist them. Importantly, she became a staunch advocate of equal pay for equal work and asserted that labor rights were human rights. One of her enduring partnerships was with the Women’s Trade Union League, headed by the remarkable Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant from Russian Poland.

The first chapter of this book is “Why Women Should Join Unions.” There O’Farrell tells the story of how ER met Rose Schneiderman in 1922, invited her over for supper and asked her why women should join unions. She quotes Schneiderman’s reply: “I remember so well telling her that that was the only way working people could help themselves. I pointed to the unions of skilled men and told her how well they were doing. By contrast, women were much worse off because they were less skilled or had no skills and could be easily replaced if they complained. They were working for $3.00 a week for nine or ten hours a day, often longer.” (Schneiderman & Goldthwaite, pp. 150-51).

The book tells us how ER joined the Women’s Trade Union League and worked with its finance and education committees. With women now voting, in 1924 she chaired an advisory committee on women’s issues for the Democratic National committee, which endorsed equal pay for equal work and the right to organize unions and bargain collectively – the committee’s recommendations were rejected by the men who then controlled the Democratic Party!

The story goes on and it is fascinating!

Brigid O’Farrell remarks: “As ER’s reform ideas developed, her mutually beneficial relationship with labor deepened. Her dialogue with labor activists clarified issues that arose in the workplace and in politics. At the same time, organized labor provided a grass-roots platform for her broader reform agenda. During her twelve years as first lady, she built on her accomplishments and skills to expand her labor concerns beyond the problems of working women to include economic and social rights for all workers. After FDR’s death she took her agenda to the United Nations, where she led an international team to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the right to join a union.” And equal pay for equal work. It was at the United Nations, of course, that she used her tea table diplomacy to such good effect.

Clio says: Everyone interested in ER, the politics of women’s employment, and the complex story of women’s participation in organized labor more generally, will appreciate this thought-provoking book.

Sources and Further Reading:
• Brigid O’Farrell, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker (Cornell University Press, 2010).
• Rose Schneiderman and Lucy Goldthwaite, All for One (Eriksson, 1967).
• Nancy Schrom Dye, As Equals and as Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement, and the Women’s Trade Union League of New York (University of Missouri Press, 1980).
• Brigid O’Farrell & Joyce Kornbluh, Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices, 1915-1975 (Rutgers University Press, 1996).
• The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Clio scan / Indiana University Press design
Jacket cover of Portia, with Abigail Adams portrait شاهدي شاشة أكبر >
Clio scan / William Morrow design
Jacket cover, Abigail and John, with portraits شاهدي شاشة أكبر >

Abigail Adams, Entrepreneurial Woman Extraordinaire

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) is perhaps best known as the second "First Lady" of the United States. What is less well known is that she became an enterprising woman and sole support of her family when, in the 1770s and 1780s her husband John Adams effectively gave up his law practice for public service. He was instrumental in launching the American Revolution against the British, serving as a member of the Continental Congress from Massachusetts and later representing the fledgling nation to (and negotiating with) the major European powers, in Amsterdam, in Paris, and in London. For over 20 years of their 54-year old marriage, Abigail and her “dearest friend” lived mostly apart, though keeping closely in touch through letters.

Abigail Adams first took over operation of the family farm, managing its tenants and coping with a shortage of farm hands and rising labor costs. She then turned to merchandising and brokering – selling desirable and scarce goods such as chinaware, calico, handkerchiefs and ribbons that John sent to her by ship from Europe. She also speculated in land and acquired extensive holdings, in the face of troubles with currency inflation, counterfeit paper money, and increasing taxation. All this she did in an era when wives were technically deprived of property and the ability to make financial transactions – but she accomplished all this in John’s name, serving in effect as her husband’s “deputy.”

Her biographer, Edith B. Gelles, describes Abigail’s activities in these terms, quoting from her very extensive correspondence, which has become a treasure of American history and literature:

“Since she could not own property in her own right, she was obliged to inform John [12 July 1782] that ‘You are named in the Charter as original proprietor, so no deed was necessary.’ Ironic indeed that John now owned over 1,600 acres of Vermont which he did not want, purchased by Abigail, who had the courage to speculate and the cleverness to negotiate for land she could not legally possess. If the situation appeared unjust to Abigail, she did not write about such a reaction in her surviving letters.”

“The Adamses didn’t become rich, but that was not Abigail’s ambition. Her aim was to maintain the family, to feed, clothe, and educate her children without going into debt. She found that a satisfying goal.”

For most women, economic enterpreneurship has been and remains first and foremost about survival. The remarkable Abigail Adams was no exception.

Edith B. Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (Indiana University Press, 1992), chap. 3.
Edith B. Gelles, Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2009), chap. 6.


Clio recently stumbled on a story about a Danish woman who in 1924 undertook farming on the tiny island of Sprogoe (Sprogø), which lies in the straits west of the island of Zeeland and east of the island of Funen. A home for women (apparently wayward women – or “pathologically promiscuous” according to Wikipedia) had been established there circa 1923, and Miss Dagmar Kristensen took on the challenge of making this Institute sustainable and self-sufficient.

At that time, the island boasted of little more than an old lighthouse and quantities of seagulls. By proving that women could develop and maintain a major farm, Miss Kristensen sought to combat existing prejudices as to what women could accomplish.

Here is the story, as reported in the Danish women’s press (and subsequently translated in the International Women’s News in 1931).

"Miss Dagmar Kristensen was the first Danish woman to be nominated to a Town Council (1910), and since that time she worked steadily on her own farm for 14 years, when she came into the limelight again in connection with the Farming Institute on Sprogoe. In 1923 the island of Sprogoe was made over by the State to the Kellerske Commission for the foundation of a Woman’s Home calculated to take about 43 women of all ages between 16 and 50 from all parts of the country. The land was to be cultivated partly from the point of view of utility and partly in order to provide work for those women who were fit for it.

"During the first year a man was put in charge of the farming but it was soon evident that a man was not suitable for the position, and when Miss Kristensen was invited to take it over she accepted and went to Sprogoe in the Autumn of 1924. The fact that a woman was to superintend the farming was met with skepticism from many sides, for agriculture on Sprogoe has always been neglected and yielded little. All the men who have leased the island from the State at a yearly rental of 300 Kroner have been reduced to poverty so the sceptics reasoned thus: if men are not capable of cultivating the land on Sprogoe how could a woman do it? But if one considers that the “men” only plowed a small proportion of the land available it is easy to understand the reason of their poverty.

"When Miss Kristensen came to the island there were only about 135 acres (55 hectares) under cultivation, the rest was left to nature – and the gulls – a peaceful growing place for thistles and other troublesome weeds, but an Eldorado for gulls and their young, though these legions of birds must surely in the course of time have contributed to making the ground fertile and it has only been waiting for people to come and cultivate and utilise it. When the property was made over to the Woman’s Home a certain amount of stock was acquired and when Miss Kristensen arrived there were 10 milch cows, 8 young cattle, 2 horses and some pigs. She was then faced with the problem of making the island produce as much food as possible for the animals and consequently also for the inhabitants, so that the least possible would have to be bought and imported. So she set her mind to plowing and during the first year she plowed nearly 500 acres (200 hectares) and sowed as much as possible. But the earth also needed lime and luckily Miss Kristensen also managed to find a lime deposit so that it was not necessary to incur the expense of bringing this by sea, though a considerable amount of work was involved in digging up the lime, transporting it, distributing it and plowing it down. One can understand now that the daily round of work – seeing that the animals were looked after properly and the milking done correctly, and all the agricultural work necessary to cultivate the area of nearly 700 acres (300 hectares) now involved – was strenuous enough for one person, especially as she usually only had the assistance of three girls of the not so specially energetic type for 6 hours a day, but nevertheless Miss Kristensen herself found extra time and energy for developing the land. There were many both small and large swamps on the estate which caused much harm and annoyance; these she filled up, using at least 8000 cart loads, as she estimates. The large courtyard of the farm was soft and uneven so she covered it with gravel and stones, doing this work in the evenings. And of course there were no roads leading out to the fields – she had to lay these herself, an undertaking involving much heavy work and careful calculation. She says herself that when the weather was favourable she worked from 5 in the morning till 11 at night. In 1925 one of the girls set fire to the Institute and most of it was burnt down, though the animals were saved thanks to the courage and energy of Miss Kristensen, who also took out of the burning stables the bull which no-one else dared to approach.

"During the following three years new buildings were erected, larger and more modern than the previous, with accommodation for 50 people and with a special laundry, sewing room, weaving room, etc. Under these improved conditions, the stock was increased and the stables enlarged, and new barns were built to store the extra machinery and larger crops. All these enterprises also laid claim on the woman farmer’s time and strength, for all the material had to be fetched from the landing-place and the necessary quantity of sand collected from the beach and carted to the building place.

"No wonder then that the agricultural specialists of the Committee of the Rigsdag [Parliament], which inspected the Woman’s Home exclaimed: “But how is it you have been able to do all this work” and she could only answer with the question: 'Who else was there to do it?'

"When Miss Kristensen now returns to her own home after 7 strenuous years she can look out over 700 acres (300 hectares) of cultivated land, clover fields, corn – turnip – and potato fields and a collection of stock that has grown to 15 milch cows, 8 large cattle, 3 horses and one bull. The whole island has in fact entirely altered in character. Miss Kristensen leaves Sprogoe in the knownedge that her work has resulted in an economic gain to the whole community, since much more food is being produced for the Institute than formerly. The last year’s accounts show this in a nutshell. Her pioneer work will also be of incalculable value to her successor.

"Last but not least Miss Kristensen herself points out that the work she has accomplished during these 7 years has been done for the honour of the woman’s movement, as the scepticism with which she was met spurred her on to prove that a woman is capable of doing what has always been called a man’s work but which has time and again been neglected by men."

Clio's thoughts: In our own time, when so much attention is focused on women’s economic empowerment, it is heartening to know that women in earlier times have also found empowerment through agricultural work – and have received recognition for their accomplishments.

However, Miss Kristensen's work was ultimately not sustainable. The Women’s Home closed in 1959 and today, no one lives permanently on the island of Sprogoe (Sprogø), which is now connected to its neighboring islands both by train and automobile bridges. Did Miss Kristensen’s efforts in developing farming there go for naught? Did her efforts succeed in empowering the women who had been sent to the Women's Home? Is there any marker to acknowledge her work?

Source: “ A Woman’s Triumph in Agriculture,” The International Women’s News, vol. 26, no.8 (May 1932), 88-89; from Kvinden og Samfundet.