Gloria Steinem has argued for decades that wage equality and salary transparency (knowing who makes what for doing the same job) are two of the biggest issues facing women in the U.S. workforce. In a new interview, she points out the lack of progress since the ‘70s, when a Time editor tried make up for a wage discrepancy by paying her with a non-returnable Gucci purse.

Asked to recount a personal experience with pay inequality by Fusion’s Lauren Tara LaCapra, Steinem told the following anecdote:

The most ironic that comes to mind is that Time magazine asked me to write an essay about the early women’s movement. It was a long time ago—it was maybe in the ’70s. First of all, they asked me to do it because they didn’t have a woman on staff. Secondly, I did it under deadline because it never occurred to me that they would pay me less than they did men writing the same essay. Time had a page in each issue in which there was a personal essay. When my agent got the check, he told me that I was getting paid less than men who wrote the same essay. So, I wrote the editor of Time and complained and he sent me a Gucci purse. I took the purse back to Gucci because I needed the money and tried to get cash for it and I couldn’t.

Discussing today’s workforce, Steinem urged women to get over the impoliteness of talking about money and start thinking of discussions of salary and pay equality as matters of free speech:

There’s also a cultural taboo that has to be overcome. If I went up to some guy in my office and said, “Here’s what I make, what do you make?” it would be awkward. Do you have any ideas about how people can get around that and start to work towards more transparency?

If we think of it as a curb on our free speech, it helps us to defy it. And of course we need to be attuned to the person we’re talking to. It helps to have a level of friendship and trust before you broach this—don’t broach it with a stranger. But it is an issue of free speech: We have a right to say what we earn and it’s perfectly reasonable to ask someone else, and that knowledge helps us get past the cultural resistance. At the other end of the spectrum, we begin to understand we are doing something socially useful when we see that equal pay for women of all races would be the biggest economic stimulus the economy could possibly have.

The activist also reminds us that wage equality benefits everyone, saying:

It’s important to understand that equal pay would be the most important economic stimulus—way better than paying money to banks and investment houses, like we did in the last economic stimulus. Women are going to use that money, not put it in Swiss bank accounts. The poorest children are in female head of households; if those households have more economic alternatives, then there will be less need for government services. So, it’s a win-win situation because it both diminishes pressure on government services and tax dollars, and also increases the opportunities and welfare of individuals.

Hear, hear.


Contact the author at madeleine@jezebel.com.

Image via Getty.

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