Introduction to my History Honours dissertation on the 1950s equal pay Campaign


In 1956 the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA), as part of its campaign for equal pay, used litigation to promote the cause. The central question under investigation is how did this use of litigation compare to contemporary campaigns in Australia and the United Kingdom? This essay studies the equal pay campaigns in these three jurisdictions up to 1960. It explores the role litigation played in equal pay campaigns, looking at both similarities and differences in the way that this campaign tool was used. Specifically it examines the 1956 Parker case taken by the PSA in 1956. In this case the PSA used litigation to challenge gender pay discrimination in the New Zealand public service. This case is then compared with litigation in the two other jurisdictions.

The end goal for the equal pay campaigns was described as ‘rate for the job’. This meant that a role should be paid at a certain rate, and the salary band or rate should not be different for male or female workers. This compared two workers doing the same job and did not look more broadly at different jobs that were of equal value. For campaigns like that being promoted by the PSA in the 1950s, the focus was on abolishing the lower salary bars for women, and having a system where a job had one wage or salary rate regardless of gender. Those involved with the campaign believed a broader call for equal pay for work of equal value would have struggled to get any traction within conservative 1950s society. Many still believed women’s place was in the home rather than at work once they were married. During this period, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) passed a convention which went further and called for work of equal value to be paid the same. This raises the question of whether the social values held in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom were more conservative than other countries during this period. The ILO Conventions and other nations’ moves towards equal pay place these three campaigns in a global context, during a time when demands for equal pay for women were becoming louder.

The New Zealand campaign paid close attention to international developments. The PSA would often report on international developments where moves were made towards equal pay for women. The PSA’s own campaign used litigation, the most notable being the Parker case taken in 1956. In this case the PSA went to the Public Service Appeal Board to challenge female salary caps in the public service. Other historians have looked at this case in the context of the New Zealand campaign in the 1950s, leading up to equal pay legislation in the 1960.

Margaret Corner’s No Easy Victory: Towards Equal Pay for Women in the Government Service 1890-1960 gives an overview of the PSA campaign for equal pay. Specifically it details the early calls for equal pay not long after the union was founded, and how these calls increased as women entered the public service in greater numbers throughout the Second World War. The 1956 Parker case is described as a turning point in the New Zealand Equal Pay movement.[1] This was due to increased public support for equal pay after this case. Corner then discusses the political impact of the PSA taking litigation on behalf of Parker, arguing this action eventually led to the 1960 legislation.

Bert Roth’s Remedy for Present Evils draws similar conclusions to Corner about the significance of the Parker litigation. Roth places the 1950s equal pay campaign in the context of the overall development of the PSA as a union. The Parker litigation and the equal pay campaign are the subject of Roth’s chapter dealing with the 1950s.

Megan Cook’s Gender and Paid work in New Zealand, 1950 to 1972 places the New Zealand campaign within the global equal pay movement in her introduction. Specifically Cook mentions the 1955 moves towards equal pay in the British Civil Service, and the New South Wales equal pay amendment to that states Industrial Arbitration Act in 1958.[2] Cook’s main thesis is about the political campaigns in New Zealand. Specifically Cook explores the reluctance of both Labour and National to implement equal pay measures in the 1950s.[3]

Melanie Nolan’s Breadwinning: New Zealand women and the state builds on the work of Corner and Roth. Nolan explores social attitudes to gender and labour relations and how these influenced the campaign. Specifically the ideology of the male breadwinner wage where men’s income was expected to support a family. Nolan examines the PSA equal pay campaign from 1943 through to the 1960 equal pay legislation. The PSA followed the lead of its international sister organisations in calling for the government to implement the ILO equal pay convention, Nolan argues.[4]

W B Sutch’s Women with a cause, describes the New Zealand PSA’s role in the equal pay campaign as essential.[5] Sutch argues The ILO Convention 100 passed in 1951 calling for equal remuneration for men and women as a significant step for that organisation. Sutch does not access how the ILO or other international developments influenced the PSA or others campaigning for equal pay in New Zealand.

While not specifically mentioning the Parker case, Raelene Frances and Melanie Nolan’s Gender and the Trans-Tasman World of Labour compares social attitudes to gender and labour relations in New Zealand and Australia. This essay draws the conclusion that the two countries have similar economies and cultures and as a result have had comparable outcomes for female workers.[6] Frances and Nolan argue that when looking at the history of women and work the two countries have not been compared properly. Specifically on the equal pay issue they highlight that studies on equal pay face focussed on either New Zealand or Australia but not Australasia.[7]

Linda Hill’s Equal pay for equal value: The case for care workers gives the historical context of equal pay legislation. Hill begins by saying New Zealand women had been calling for equal pay since they gained the right to vote in 1893.[8]  The ILO Convention in 1951 is cited by Hill as providing impetus for women public servants in New Zealand to begin campaigning for equal pay.[9] This claim is not entirely accurate, as other events such as the equal pay developments in Britain had a far greater impact on New Zealand equal pay supporters.

Pragmatic Procrastination: Government, Unions and Equal Pay 1949-68 By Tom Sheridan and Pat Stretton examines how the political establishment in Australia for many years avoided calls for equal pay legislation. This essay describes how the Menzies government in 1951 claimed to support the principle of equal pay. The Menzies government abstained on the ILO equal pay convention, not wanting to commit to something that could be used against it by the equal pay campaign.[10] The essay also studies the increasing calls for equal pay from within the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) from the 1930s onwards. It outlines the events leading up to the New South Wales (NSW) state government equal pay legislation in 1958. Sheriden and Stretton also assess efforts to get equal pay campaigns in other Australian states in 1950s, and how these struggled to gain support.

Brandon Ellem’s Women’s Rights and Industrial Relations under the Postwar Compact Australia explores the greater movement of women into the workforce in the first half of the 20th Century. Ellem explains how during the Second World War increased calls for equal pay for women exposed the conflicting views with the trade union movement on this issue. Many union leaders at this time supported equal pay only as a mechanism to protect male wages. Ellem’s conclusion compares Australia to other industrialised countries as having increased female participation in the paid work force.[11]

Raymond Markey’s Organisational Consolidation and Unionateness in the NSW Public Service Association 1899 – 1939 studies the development of this organisation. The NSW Public Service Association consistently lobbied for equal pay for women and in 1915 a women’s organising committee was formed.[12] This is similar to the New Zealand PSA who first took a position in favour of equal pay for women in 1914, though no mention of this is made by Markey. Studies of the Australian equal pay campaign say little about the influences of international campaigns occurring at the same time.

Harold L Smith has written much on the topic of the British equal pay movement. His work British feminism and the equal pay issue in the 1930s gives an overview of the feminists lead the equal pay campaign in 1930s. Smith rebuts claims that the feminist movement became moribund after the 1920s in Britain, citing the 1930 equal pay campaign for civil servants as evidence of it still functioning. In 1936 a vote in the House of Commons for equal pay in the civil service narrowly passed, only to be reversed by the government a short time later.

Smith’s essay The Womanpower Problem in Britain during the Second World War, assesses how women entering the workforce in the Second World War further built the movement for equal pay in Britain. Smith goes into more detail in The Problem of “Equal Pay for Equal Work” in Great Britain during World War II. Smith outlines how increasingly unions and women who had been required by the government to work demanded the same wages as men.

In Smith’s The Politics of Conservative Reform: The Equal Pay for Equal Work Issue 1945-1955 explores the political response to growing calls for equal pay after the Second World War. This outlines how both Labour and Conservative Party’s in government were reluctant to progress the equal pay issue. By 1955 the Conservative Government, as a result of growing public pressure, did introduce equal pay for the Civil Service. Smith talks a great deal about the campaign in Britain, but says little about how international influenced this. Nor does Smith say much about how developments in Britain influenced the campaigns in New Zealand, Australia or elsewhere.

This dissertation will build on the concept of international comparative histories and compares the use of litigation as part of the equal pay campaigns up to 1960 in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. These countries have been chosen due to their similar political institutions and their relationship as Commonwealth countries. This study will explore these campaigns and how the New Zealand equal pay movement was influenced and inspired by Australian and British campaigns. The frameworks for industrial relations in these countries were similar during this period, as were the social attitudes and politics. The dissertation will look at the development of equal pay campaigns in the decades leading up to the 1950s.

Specifically it studies the impact of women entering the workforce in increasing numbers during the 1930s depression and further during the Second World War. It studies the impact of the ILO moves to implement international conventions regarding equal pay, and how this impacted the New Zealand campaign’s use of litigation. From there it assesses the New Zealand Parker case and whether similar strategic litigation was used in Britain or Australia. It assesses the role litigation played as leverage to bring about political change.  Oral histories from those involved with the PSA equal pay campaign, along with PSA journals and other PSA publications are studied as part of this research. Finally, the dissertation will explore the political responses to litigation as part of the wider equal pay campaign during this period. Parliamentary Debates, media report, interviews with PSA activists and PSA publications have been used in this research.

[1] Margaret Corner No Easy Victory Public Service Association, Wellington, 1988 49

[2] Megan Cook Gender and Paid Work in New Zealand, 1950 to 1972 Otago University, February 2000 15

[3] Cook 80

[4] Melanie Nolan Breadwinning: New Zealand women and the state Canterbury University Press 236

[5] W B Sutch Women with a cause New Zealand University Press 1974 125

[6] Ralene Frances and Melanie Nolan Gender and the Trans-Tasman World of Labour: Transnational and Comparative Histories Labour History Number 95 November 2008 36

[7] Frances and Nolan 26

[8] Linda Hill Equal pay for equal value: The case for care workers Women’s Studies Journal, Volume 27 Number 2, December 2013

[9] Hill 15

[10] Sheridan & Stretton Pragmatic Procrastination: Governments, Unions, and Equal Pay 1949 -68 Labour History number 94 May 2008 135

[11] Brandon Ellem Women’s Rights and Industrial Relations Under the Post-war Compact in Australia University of Sydney 1999 61

[12] Raymond Markey Organisational Consolidation and Unionateness in the NSW Public Service Association 1899-1939 Labour History number 99, November 2010 105

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