Comparable Worth: Comparable to What?

Mary Tyler Moore, television’s sweetheart, pushed into Lou Grant’s male turf to raise a point. Grant, television’s tough guy, wouldn’t look up from his papers, but allowed her to argue her case. Then he growled like a grizzly, shuffled his papers, and, without looking up, gave in. His capitulation confirmed stale news. The family wage was dead. And it suggested developing news. So was the family as we knew it.

Mary Tyler Moore’s television roles have reflected not only the changing woman but the changing family. She began as Mrs. Dick Van Dyke, the all-American homebody, which image the feminists loved to trash. She returned as a single career woman in her own “Mary Tyler Moore Show” where, as Mary II, she edged forward into the masculine world. Her ambitious but still vulnerable femininity was nevertheless protected by the chivalry she was helping to kill. And now Mary’s back, single again after a divorce. Mary III no longer talks to Lou Grant. Now she talks like him.

Mary, it seems, is following an agenda, just like the women she represents. Thus her new image, Mary III, connects with the issue of “comparable worth.” Where Mary’s at suggests where the family’s at — or might be very soon. We’ve argued half a decade about comparable worth: how to measure it, how to pay for it, how to implement it, how to live with it. We’ve argued mostly about what it will do for women. But we haven’t argued as much about what it will do for men, particularly that fading breed called “family men.” It’s time that we do, time that we ask what comparable worth might do to the family, about what kind of family it might eventually serve.

To pick up the trends as reflected in Mary’s current agenda, let’s return to the opening scene in Lou Grant’s office where the family wage was at issue. In this episode Mary II, a television journalist, had won a promotion, only to find it entangled in prejudice. She would replace a man, but she would not earn his salary. She walked diffidently into Lou Grant’s office waited to get his attention, and then asked, very politely, “Why?”

“Because he had a wife and four kids, that’s why.” Mary II found it hard to press forward, but she refused to back down.

“Mr. Grant? Uh, Mr. Grant?”


“Mr. Grant, uh, I wonder if you might answer just one question?”

“What is it!”

“Do you get paid around here for producing children or producing results?”

Lou Grant’s eyes flared. His nostrils twitched. Then he said, “You get the same pay.”

“Thank you, Mr. Grant,” Mary said sweetly and, as sweetly, departed to tackle her new job.

Score one for Mary’s hard-won assertiveness. But recall also that a recently established consensus in the early seventies had helped to build her confidence. In a period when some of us declared that we’d outgrown absolutes, equal pay for equal work had become as absolute as the speed of light. “Equality” as a collective ideal had become as morally energizing as the Holy Grail, the goal toward which we progressed, the standard by which progress was measured, the principle by which standards could be valued.

And yet some of us answered this born-again egalitarianism with stubborn skepticism. I was one of them. I had been living the kind of equality the rest of us apparently wanted. I worked on a gender-balanced high school teaching staff (equality of job distribution). And I shared with others the same salary (equal pay for equal work). On the job a teacher was a teacher was a teacher, and one salary schedule served each, equally.

On the job. That was the problem, then and now. Because off the job and at home, in the kind of home where my wife and I and our four children were living, an equal pay system created gross inequalities. The same $10,000 I was getting could also support a single teacher or fatten the income of a two-career couple. By several standards applied in those days you could call the gap between my household income and their’s “fair.” But you’d have to be wearing ideological blinders if you called it “equal.”

Now, when Mary H, the progressive careerist and evolving woman, arm-twisted her male boss, she had society behind her. Also government. But even though her triumph made a point, it also evaded a point. Mary II, remember, was decidedly single. Many of her show’s predicaments developed from the dilemmas of her stubborn independence. And although Mary II often wavered, she always returned to her securely private bachelor pad. At the show’s end, Mary II gathered around her all the guys in the office to affirm the workplace kinship the series celebrated. They were Mary’s only family, the only one she apparently would ever need.

And for that reason a key question never was asked: If we only worry about producing results in the workplace, what do we do about people who produce children? In my day that answer was, That’s your own business; if you choose to have children, you can damn well pay for them. That sentiment carried weight because we were then afraid that the baby boom had generated a population glut. We no longer pinned medals on baby begetters. In fact, we chewed them out. In the media we saw a new hero, a barren patriot, who served the country by foregoing children. Mary II, single and childless, was a TV heroine in more ways than one.

While Mary was evolving, so was the concept of “equality.” It once meant equality before the law and equality of opportunity. By that test, my single breadwinning income and six-person household shared the blessing of equality. But by the time Mary II became a hit series, progressives were demanding “equality of results.” That development dramatized the question that Lou Grant never asked: Just how will equal pay for equal work result in equal households?

If that question was tough to answer in the seventies, try its updated version in the eighties: How will equal pay for comparable work result in household equality? To grapple with the swarming complexities of this question, let’s in-, vent a scenario for the current Mary Tyler Moore show.

Mary III, you may recall, arrived in the fall of 1985, demonstrating in the first episode that she had grown into one tough lady. She no longer stepped delicately into the boss’s chambers. She marched in. She didn’t wait for eye-to-eye contact. She demanded it. And if the boss evaded confrontation by clinging to a telephone, she ripped it out of the wall.

In this updated scenario I’ve invented for her, Mary’s new muscular persona orders her boss to give her a pay raise.

“I want 35K a year and I want it now.”

“Who says?”

“I say, and the Equity Analysis Associates says, and the Fair Employment Practices Commission says, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says, and the American Federation of Labor says, and the City Board of Supervisors says, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals says, and the National Organization for Women says….”

“OK. So that tells me ‘who.’ Now tell me what they’re saying.”

“That an ‘equity study’ gives my job 90 points.” “So?”

“So, the truck fleet manager also gets 90 points, and he earns 35K while / earn only 30.”

“Maybe I should cut his pay.”

“That’s your option. All you have to do is explain it to the Teamsters Union.”

“Then I’ll have to raise all the office salaries. We’re talking millions.”

“Life is unfair. Capitalism is unfair. Only the FEPC is fair. Now do I get the money or do I rip out your phone again?”

“You get the same pay. Please don’t slam the door on the way out.”

Move the “woman’s agenda” ahead one more notch. “Equality” evolves into “equity” and the cash flow gets rechanneled. But note once more that Mary III, like Mary II, is conspicuously single and childless and that the advanced form of equality she demands still requires a balancing of abstractions. Equal pay for equal work assumed that a worker is a worker is a worker. Comparable pay says a job is a job is a job. Numbers supposedly don’t lie, especially when they’re joined by equal signs. But people flesh out the numbers and go home to varying households. So let’s check that stubborn reality by adding a new wrinkle to the saga of Mary’s escalating salary demands.

Mary summons the boss to her office. As he stands diffidently, just inside the door, she declares, “I need a raise.”

“Who says so this time? Let me guess for myself. It’s got to be the Pay Equity Board. They re-calculated your ‘worth’ index and came up with new numbers.”


“Well, then, it’s got to be the Fair Employment Prac¬tices Commission. We’ve got to recompense you for the years you worked without comparable worth rules.”

“Not a bad idea. I’ll have the NOW lawyers look into that. But no. This time it’s not the FEPC or the EEOC.”

“I give up. Please tell me. ”

“The FEB.”

“Oh no. I’m scared to ask. What in hell is the FEB?”

“The Family Equalization Board. They’ve determined that a discriminatory gap exists between my workplace status and my household status. Comes to a minus 7 in fact.”

“I may have overlooked something, Mary, but I don’t recall you had a family. You taking care of your mother or something?”

“No. I’m not taking care of my mother and I’m not married.” At this point a trace of Mary II ripples over her face, a micro-second of sweetness and charm. “But, I will be starting a family. My gynecologist tells me I’m having a baby in March.”

“Well, congratulations. I know I can’t ask this officially, Mary, but I wonder if you’d mind telling me who’s the lucky guy.”

“I have no idea.”

“Mary, as far as I know, the Immaculate Conception only happened once.”

“Oh, I know about him. From the catalogue. At the sperm bank.”


“Either way, I’m just as pregnant. You’ll therefore make the proper salary adjustments?”

“Of course.”

“I may also assume the company’s day care center meets government specifications?”

“No problem. We just built a new wing and added five people.”

“Good. Then I’ll see you in eight months.”


“Four months pre- and four months post-maternity leave. Those are the correct numbers, aren’t they?”


“Okay, then. Put the salary adjustment into the works and please close the door quietly as you leave.”

Too far-fetched? A bit, but not implausible. Current legal and moral conventions permit, if they do not necessarily encourage, such a scenario. On the grounds that such inquiries sexually discriminate, employers don’t ask about an applicant’s marital status. An applicant is an applicant is an applicant, whether he or she connects at home with a spouse and “legitimate” children, a live-in lover, an ad hoc come-and-go commune, a house full of love children, or the unlimited potential of the individual soul.

Nor is Mary III’s “choice” in any way far-fetched. It has become relatively common; by pluralistic standards even normative. In 1985 around 10,000 women had themselves impregnated at sperm banks. Many others, however, still indulge in the joy of sex on their way to the joy of single maternity, in sufficient numbers to establish a new sociological category, the “never formed family.” In the black community such families comprise the majority. Black leaders are now beginning to see it not as a tolerated choice but as an economic and sociological nightmare. In the white community the choice still enjoys fashionable tolerance and a cute euphemism: “elective single parenthood.” A number of celebrities have had well-publicized love children, and a whole crowd of celebrities have laughed that “silly piece of paper” out of serious consideration.

Many of those who still believe in the institution of marriage don’t try hard enough to maintain it. The soaring divorce rate is common knowledge, the source of widespread worry. In the 1980s half the kids being born will at some time experience a single parent household. In the 1990s, most of them will. The unmarried working mother, with or without a partner, single by choice or chance, the primary caretaker in a once-formed or never-formed family, now finds sufficient strength in numbers to demand the kind of attention — and money — going to conventionally married men and women in the workplace.

In fact, by some demographic/economic/ideological perversity some of these women are now pleading for a return of the “family” wage, which means that once again the household circumstances of a worker should be factored into salary determinations. Notice, for example, how one columnist has argued the merits of comparable worth. Having repeated the well known statistics that disclose disparities between male and female majority occupations, she then refers to the minimum requirements for families. “If the poverty guidelines say that a family of four needs $9,600 to survive, what about those (mostly female) who make $4,500 as household workers … or $7,543 as sales clerks … or $9,100 as health service workers?” (My italics and parentheses.) She then asserts that “If working wives and female heads of household were paid the same wages that men of similar qualifications earn, about half of the families now living in poverty would not be poor.” Her solution: higher welfare payments and more comparable .work programs. (See Yvonne Franklin, San Jose Mercury, Aug. 27, 1984.)

As the scenario of Mary III illustrates, a woman’s private choice to enter the work force, or to have children, generates in turn a public obligation. Under a strained interpretation of “equity of results,” a woman on the job supposedly needs special compensations to overcome the handicaps of maternity. Only when her company or the government, or both, equalize her circumstances can they supposedly equalize the terms of her employment.

That’s just fine for women who choose to enter the work force, but not so good for women who choose to stay at home and not so good for the men who support them. The key word here is “choice” and the key consideration is “limited duration.” The full-time homemaker, the traditional housewife, is by most accounts, a dying breed. But not the temporary homemaker who stays with her children for five or ten years until she can return to her career. She’s not only not dying; she’s in fact gaining new life, and adding new constituents to her cause. That puts her and her husband in direct confrontation with the dogmatic full-time female careerist.

The political power of the housewife constituency, full- or part-time, has figured prominently in the theories of utopian egalitarians. The housewife must go, they say, if not by force of circumstance, then by the force of persuasion. Or coercion.

Some theorists see the latter as an unavoidable price of ultimate equality. Listen to one of them speaking to a 1978 Status of Women seminar at Stanford University. In answer to a question whether some women should be permitted the “option” of staying at home, she declared that such choices threatened equality because if only 20 percent of women stayed home the rest would have “to pay the price of deviance.” If laggards still harbor counter-revolutionary sentiments, then according to Karen DeCrow, another theorist, they should not only be “permitted and encouraged” to reshape the economics of their lives, but also “forced.” By such reasoning, the speculative Mary III, who impregnated herself at a sperm bank, can denounce as a deviant Mary I, the traditional housewife. All this in twenty years. We’ve come a long way.

Yet people like Karen DeCrow would like us to go further. She knows — the first feminists knew, all radical feminists know — that the only way to achieve equality between the sexes is to assume that only individuals matter and that only salaried public work is worthwhile. That means that private “parenting,” the last vestige of bourgeois sentimentality, must become a state monopoly. Such a vision was always implicit in the contemporary woman’s movement. When feminists demanded “fifty-fifty across the board,” complete parity between the sexes at work and at home, they knew there was only one way to achieve it. The private family had to go.

But, in our blessedly pluralistic society, not all individuals share the feminist faith. Thus “comparable worth,” touted as the decade’s hottest issue, must defer to larger questions concerning the kind of families and the kind of communities we want for ourselves and our children. Such questions have been clouded by a modernist prejudice which assumes that all family traditionalists worship in Jerry Falwell’s church. But wherever you find yourself on the religio/philosophical spectrum, you will still have to confront questions about “the family” and ask, in fact, whether we should continue to speak of “the” family as normative.

No doubt “comparable worth” will benefit some people. It will also meet certain definitions of equality. But those people and that definition are not the only ones worth considering. Others deserve our attention. Equally.


tagged as: family numbers salary women

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