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Heritage Moments: The Buffalo congresswoman and the fight for equal pay

Library of Congress
Winifred C. Stanley of Buffalo served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1943 to 1945.

The World War II homefront was a special time and place for American women. With some 16 million men off to fight in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific, the war effort at home depended on women, who rolled up their sleeves and went to work in factories in unprecedented numbers — a mighty army of Rosie the Riveters. For the first time, the societal strictures that tethered women to unpaid work at home were loosening — and yet it was understood that when the men returned, the women would go back to being second-class citizens.

But not if Winifred Clare Stanley could help it. A barrier-breaking Buffalonian elected to the House of Representatives at the height of the war, in 1944 she introduced a bill to make equal pay for equal work federal law, regardless of gender. All society would benefit, she said, if American could maintain in “peacetime the drive and energy which women have contributed to the war effort.”

Stanley’s push for this most basic form of gender equality seems commonplace today, but at the time it was considered radical, even threatening — so much so that her bill was left to languish without a vote for nearly 20 years. “A woman’s place,” Congressman James W. Wadsworth of Geneseo said dismissively, “is in the home.”

Stanley’s career firmly asserted that a woman’s place was anywhere she wanted it to be. A graduate of Lafayette High School, UB and UB Law School, she entered the bar in 1934 at age 25. Very soon, she proved that she took no guff. According to her official House of Representatives biography:

When going to court one morning, she found the courtroom closed to women because of the nature of the crime being tried. She considered this an intolerable affront to women, especially because her gender also had been barred from New York juries, regardless of the crime. Stanley considered jury duty “second in importance only to the right to vote” and mobilized women’s clubs, church societies and political organizations to press for women’s right to participate in the courtroom as citizen peers. Her actions … won the right for participation on a jury panel for women in New York.

At 28 she was appointed assistant district attorney — the first female A.D.A. in Erie County history. The state Republican Party took notice of the smart, young and glamorous rising star in Buffalo and, five years later, tapped her to run for one of New York’s two statewide, at-large Congressional seats. Both seats were set to disappear after 1945 due to reapportionment, so for the GOP, Stanley was an easy short-term solution: if she won, she would serve in the House two years and then go away.

In the November 1942 statewide election, Stanley ran against a distinguished field of three other women (women in the House of Representatives, though fairly rare, were hardly unknown — 75 had already served between 1917 and 1942). Stanley’s opponents were Syracuse Democrat Flora D. Johnson, who also ran on the American Labor Party ticket; New York City Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a famed activist for workers’ and women’s rights; and Harlem Socialist Layle Lane, an African-American educator, civil rights activist and labor organizer.

Stanley won with 1.97 million votes to Johnson’s 1.87 million; Flynn and Lane received the remaining 73,000 votes.

Beyond championing equal pay for women during her single term in the House, the charismatic Stanley spoke out for other causes as well. She pushed for the establishment of more V.A. hospitals in upstate New York to handle the influx of returning veterans, and introduced a bill to eliminate the poll tax (the voting fee imposed by some states to keep blacks from casting ballots).

After her brief stay in Congress, Stanley went on to work as counsel for the New York State Employees Retirement System and, for 24 years, an assistant attorney general of the state. She died in 1996.

Undoubtedly, Stanley was well ahead of her time. The poll tax she opposed in 1944 was not abolished until 1964. And her bill calling for equal pay for women wasn’t passed until 1963, when it was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy.

Yet despite that landmark legislation, the gender wage gap would prove persistently, stubbornly vast; in 2017, for example, American women earned only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. The mordant, yet hopeful observation Winifred Stanley made in 1944 still rings true all these decades later:

“It has often been remarked that this is a ‘man’s world,’” she said. “It’s ‘our world,’ and this battered old universe needs and will need the best brains and the ability of both men and women.”

Cast (in order of appearance):

Speaker of the House: Karl-Eric Reif

Congresswoman Winifred C. Stanley: Margo Davis

Congressman No. 1: Steve Abbott

Congressman No. 2: Mike Dugan

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)