Gendered Merit: Women and the Merit Concept in Federal Employment, 1864-1944
Until the late nineteenth century public jobs often were awarded through the spoils system; supporters of elected officials and loyal party members were given appointments, resulting in a sometimes incompetent work force. During and after the Civil War, women pressured congressmen for jobs based on economic hardship. Most of them were given clerical jobs, and in 1864, § 6 of the Deficiency Appropriations Act set salary levels for female government employees below those for men. The patronage system created an imbalance of power: women who sought jobs were at the mercy of their representatives.
Nevertheless, the number of women in the government work force grew, and they were found to be as competent as men. In 1870 Congress gave department heads the authority to appoint women to higher-paying positions. Most women still made low salaries. Many believed working married women took jobs away from men and single women. George Hoar's amendment to the 1876 Appropriations Act allowed department heads to replace men with lower-paid women. By 1880, women's presence in government employment had grown, but women were seen merely as a cheap labor force.
President Garfield's assassination in 1881, believed to result from conflicts arising out of the spoils system, spurred Congress to pass the Civil Service Act of 1883. The statute's goal was to establish a more efficient work force through use of a merit system. Potential federal employees would take an examination and those with the highest grades would get the jobs. The act, however, left the old system of job classification and salary discretion intact, resulting in sex-specific examinations for sex-typed jobs. Women still made less money than men, and employers continued to hire them only for the lowest-paying positions. Despite the limitations, the number of federally employed women grew to almost half that of men by 1897. And a few professional positions were occupied by women.
Despite the decline of patronage, assumptions about women's domestic roles remained. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economic downturns generated fear about the financial security of male breadwinners and a backlash against employment of women. World War I expanded the job market for women, but occupational segregation and wage disparities remained. The mainstream women's suffrage movement did not use equality arguments in gaining the vote, undermining the concept of merit-based employment for women and reinforcing domestic need as a justification for giving women jobs. In 1920 standard civil service examinations were opened to men and women alike, but employers could still specify the sex of employee desired. The Classification Act of 1923 contained an equal pay provision, but occupational segregation remained entrenched.
With the Depression came a sense that the government had a duty to provide jobs for the needy. Under § 213 of the Economy Act of 1932, married women whose husbands worked for the federal government lost their jobs. Married women were seen as economically superfluous; the merit system no longer applied to them. Though § 213 was repealed in 1937, that step occurred out of a fear that firing women would break up families, not because of equality-based arguments. Even after the Depression, working women were tolerated only as far as their labor could be justified by their financial need. The disjunction between the view of women's employment as a part of their domestic responsibility and the merit system's premise of equal opportunity left merit a male-oriented concept.
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