Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Congress Passes Deficiency Act During Civil War Giving Women Jobs -- at Half the Pay of Men

During the 19th century, federal clerical jobs remained the sole domain of men until 1854 when the U.S. Patent Office began employing female copyists who worked at home and were paid 10 cents per 100 words copied. 

By 1861, necessity became the mother of invention. To underwrite the cost of the Civil War, the government printed additional bank notes which had to be clipped and counted before being released. Old, worn-out notes were checked for counterfeit, and recounted, then destroyed. 

Male clerks earning $1200 a year had been put to work performing the necessary tasks, but the office was falling behind. U.S. Treasurer Francis Spinner, who had enlisted his wife and daughter to cut notes when he was a New York banker, suggested women be hired at half the pay to perform the jobs. He said to Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase that “these young men should have muskets instead of shears placed in their hands and should be sent to the front, and their places filled by women, who would do more and better work, at half the pay that was given to these ‘men milliners.’” Chase hesitated, fearing that employing women as clerks would “demoralize” the department, but consented to tryout one woman. Her first day on the job, this young woman, according to Spinner, “did more work than any one of the clerks. . .[T]his decided the whole matter.” Thereafter, only female clerks were hired to clip currency. 

Spinner’s successful “experiment” precipitated Congress’s enactment of a Deficiency Act authorizing the hiring of women at $600 per year – exactly half the salary given to the lowest-paid male clerk. Women offered a way to solve the continual and pressing demand for more workers without overextending the budget.