“The Reward of a Living Wage” — 100 Years Later

L-R: Caren Kessler, Sunny Lockwood, Belinda Peters, and Ellen Gabarino of the local AAUW. Photo by Karin Strickland

“If a country is justified in rewarding its heroic pioneers,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumna Ellen Swallow Richards wrote in her 1907 report, Desirable Tendencies in Professional and Technical Education for Women, “society will be equally justified in giving the reward of a living wage to the women working in professional lines.”

Richards rattled American politics with those words, demanding commensurate compensation more than a decade before Congress ratified the 19th amendment. She and University of Chicago’s Marion Talbot took positions on other equity issues as well, fighting patriarchal abuses as leaders of the American Association of University Women, formerly the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. Today, 137 years after the organization’s founding, everything has changed, and nothing has.

“We’ve made progress,” says Ellen Garbarino, president of AAUW’s Hendersonville branch. “But we’re still fighting the same problems.”

Some 91 members strong, the local group makes waves in Henderson County, purchasing headphones for elementary-school students to use in computer labs, helping register women to vote, raising money for legal advocacy, and creating endowment funds to benefit students at Blue Ridge Community College. But like Richards, the group also has a pet issue: pay inequality.

“On average, women working full time in like positions are paid 80 cents for every $1 men are paid,” says member Belinda Peters. Per the National Women’s Law Center, a female professional could lose $418,000 over her 40-year career, even more if she is a person of color. This means less money for retirement, social security, food, education, and housing — and a serious disadvantage when compared to male counterparts.

The injustice is not lost on AAUW. In March, Peters and fellow associate Caren Kessler facilitated Smart Start, a workshop designed to help soon-to-be graduates navigate the gender pay gap by negotiating salary and benefits. The program is part of a larger national effort and is accompanied by Start Smart, a second workshop series for women already in the workforce. Both are concerned with determining and articulating one’s worth. “We all wish we had this resource early in our careers,” Garbarino says, noting that 13 students attended the March session, two of them men.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Hendersonville AAUW branch has had to refresh its advocacy approach in recent years. Rather than justify why women should go to college or get jobs outside the home, meetings now cover such serious trending topics as human trafficking and sexual harassment in the workplace, and outreach highlights home technologies and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs.

But not everything has changed since the ’70s. “The wages have increased, but continue to be unequal; women are entering the sciences, but not staying; and discrimination is still an issue,” lists Garbarino.

Richards’ dedication to empowerment remains, too. “I had a long career in government administration and witnessed disparate treatment firsthand,” notes Peters. “I have several granddaughters and grandnieces, and my dream is that they will never face the abuses my generation and generations before us did. We’re in this for the long haul, until equality for all women is a reality.”

The AAUW Hendersonville branch will host a general public meeting on Friday, May 11, at Trinity Presbyterian Church (900 Blythe St.) at 9:30am, celebrating “Four Decades of Women” with a review of the branch’s history. Free. An anniversary luncheon happens Saturday, June 2, at Hendersonville Country Club. For more information about the June event, call 828-435-1053 or visit hendersonville-nc.aauw.net.

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