Just over a century ago, a small number of states, led by Massachusetts, established minimum wages, a policy experiment that reverberates to this day. What is striking about these early minimum-wage laws is that they applied only to women and minor children, as minimum-wage laws for adult males were seen as an unacceptable infringement of their right to free contract. Adult females, however, were placed in an entirely different category of human being. Women were deemed physically and morally fragile and in need of the state’s protection from the vicissitudes of the labor market. Moreover, working women were seen as a potential threat to male breadwinners and their central role in family life. As women entered the work force, the fear was that they would undercut male workers and thereby force down the “family wage” that allowed fathers to keep their wives and children clothed, housed, and fed.
To have spoken of a “gender gap” in this area — a gap between female and male wages — wouldn’t have made much sense, not least because the use of the term “gender” to refer to sex was not yet de rigueur. The Progressives who championed restrictive labor-market regulations were well aware of a substantial gap between the compensation offered to women and that offered to men. The goal was, if anything, to widen that gap in men’s favor. Much has changed since then. The most important change, perhaps, has been that the family-wage ideal no longer fits the realities of the American family.