The letter, written by my great-grandmother to my great-grandfather during their courtship, offers a century-old perspective on a problem that refuses to go away: pay equity. ``I am teaching here in town this winter,'' she explained at the beginning of her second year of teaching in 1867. ``A Mr. Pope teaches the other school. I have 32 and he has 30 scholars. He gets $50 per month and I $25. They say he never taught before. . . .''
Two years later, teachers' salaries became the subject of another letter she wrote: ``Mr. Gillmore is going to teach here this winter, and [my friend] Alida the primary grades. Mr. Gillmore gets $50 and Alida $28. I think that is pretty good. The doctor did not want to pay quite as much as $50, but the rest were willing so he hired him. Alida asked $28, and the doctor said he would not beat her down as long as they paid Mr. Gillmore so much.''
Today, 115 years after the school committee in that small Wisconsin town granted Alida 56 cents for every dollar Mr. Gillmore earned and agreed not to ``beat her down'' to a lower salary, women still earn, on average, between 59 percent and 62 percent of men's salaries. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 makes it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, but it does not protect many women clustered in female-dominated fields such as teaching, nursing, and clerical work.
Enter comparable worth, an attempt to achieve pay equity by ranking jobs on the basis of the skills and responsibility they require and their value to an employer. Hailed by women's groups and labor unions as the most important pay issue of the '80s, the concept has come under fire from opponents in industry and government. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization, has told the Justice Department that ``the fight against comparable worth must become a top priority.'' A senior White House economist, William Niskanen, called it ``a truly crazy proposal.'' And the chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., in a now-famous comment, termed it ``the looniest idea since Looney Tunes came on the screen.''
The bad news for Mr. Niskanen and Mr. Pendleton is that this ``crazy proposal,'' this ``loony idea,'' continues to gain momentum. At least 15 states are reviewing job classifications for evidence of discrimination. Scores of lawsuits have been filed against cities and states across the country. And a recent 10-week strike at Yale University -- temporarily suspended without settlement -- focused national attention on salary differentials at the university, where mostly female clerical workers earn an average of $13,400 and truck drivers $18,500.
Much of the reason for gaps between men's and women's wages, many experts maintain, is sex segregation in the labor force.
``It's more than a gap, it's a chasm,'' Florida state Sen. Carrie P. Meek told members of the Florida Women's Network at a meeting on comparable worth in Tampa last fall. ``Only about half the gap can be explained by differences in age, education, and experience. There is a residual difference: sex discrimination.''
In an ideal world, proper adjustment of imbalances would occur naturally through the workings of a free marketplace. But market forces have been notoriously slow in bringing women's salaries in line with men's -- witness the modest gains since my great-grandmother and Mr. Pope earned greatly disparate salaries for similar duties more than a century ago.
Prospects for the future, moreover, are not encouraging. The Rand Corporation, while noting recent gains in women's pay, has predicted that by the year 2000 women will still earn only 74 percent of men's income.
Opponents of comparable worth predict that economic chaos would result from trying to balance disparities. They cite the $800 million it could cost Washington State to comply with a federal judge's order to equalize pay for 15,000 workers in female-dominated state jobs. And using the concept in government employment, Mr. Pendleton says, would require the federal government to raise more money, which ``doesn't come from the tooth fairy.''
Neither do women's current salaries. Just ask working women -- especially members of the 10 million families the government says have no male wage earner -- who know all too well how far 59 cents doesn't go in buying a dollar's worth of goods and services.
Instead of asking if we can afford to make these changes, we should consider another question: Can we afford not to? Fifty-seven percent of Americans living at the poverty level -- now at its highest point in 18 years -- are women. Some critics maintain that women should seek higher-paying or nontraditional jobs. That may be part of the solution. But for those who through preference, training, or talent choose traditional ``women's'' jobs, the answer lies not in a mass exodus but in an upgrading of pay levels to reflect more accurately the value and importance of their work.
Comparable worth may not be an exact mathematical possibility. But it is a moral idea that deserves to be taken seriously.
By documenting and publicizing specific imbalances, its proponents are forcing thinking people to ask: Is it fair that New York City police dispatchers, most of whom are black women, earn $4,000 to $6,000 a year less than fire dispatchers, the majority of whom are white men? Is it equitable to pay cleaning matrons in Massachusetts a starting salary $1,000 lower than that of male janitors? And should a librarian in Virginia with 13 years of experience and a master's degree in library science receive the same salary -- less than $25,000 -- as a county maintenance superintendent with a high school diploma?
Ultimately, trying to legislate equality may prove as impossible as trying to legislate morality. But not to attempt to achieve equality is to perpetuate inequality and the attitudes that promote it. As a matter of economic justice for nearly 45 percent of the work force, comparable worth deserves a hearing. It may not be a perfect -- or permanent -- solution. But in raising questions about fairness and equality, it may prove to be an important first step in finding answers that can benefit everyone.
Marilyn Gardner is the Monitor's Home and Family editor.