The Little-Known Story of the Women Who Stood Up to General Motors and Demanded Equal Pay

In the 1930s, Florence St. John and her co-workers at an automotive plant won a hard-fought victory for fairness

illustration of a women inside an auto factory
Illustration by Ūla Šveikauskaitė

By 1938, there wasn't a job Florence St. John hadn’t done in the raucous Sheet Metal Department at the Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan, where around 300 workers at 70 or so behemoth machines punched, drilled, welded and riveted Oldsmobile parts.

St. John stepped onto the factory floor for the first time in 1928, joining around 30 other women in the overwhelmingly male trade. The 32-year-old mother of three worked elbow-to-elbow with the men, levering heavy presses to bend and cut steel. In the 1930s, managers at the Olds Motor Works, a division of General Motors, treated St. John and other women the same as men in nearly all but one respect: pay.

A group of women pose for a group portrait
Women of the Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan, 1939, including at least three who transferred their legal claims to St. John, enabling the landmark case. MyHeritage

St. John first discovered a pay disparity during games of “check pool”—a form of poker that the workers played with their paychecks to entertain themselves on the factory floor. Time after time, St. John and the other women noticed a pattern: Men on the same shifts with similar jobs and less seniority, some of whom the women had trained, appeared to be making more. This curious game of chance would eventually tip the scales at trial and result in the first major damages award in a job discrimination case in U.S. history—a critical but largely forgotten struggle that inspired women and legislatures across the country to take up the cause of equal pay.

Lower pay didn’t mean lighter loads for the women, who among other duties had to drag around huge pans full of car parts weighing up to 200 pounds, often without assistance. If they didn’t meet strictly enforced quotas, the men and women knew they would lose their jobs. In the heavy press room, St. John worked with women, including her friend Merreta Cobb, and men, as the workers wrenched together strips of steel to make an elaborate part called a harmonic balancer—a sturdy five-pound disc that absorbs vibrations that would otherwise damage the engine. In assembling the balancers, the women were themselves equal to men in strength, skill and grit, as attested by their male co-workers. There was a sense they were all in it together.

Check pool eroded this sense by revealing that GM paid men $15 to $20 more per pay period. In late 1936, as strikes erupted at GM plants in nearby Flint, Michigan, in response to poor working conditions and hundreds of worker deaths, St. John began urging Forrest Brown, her co-worker and a union representative, to help the women close the pay gap. Brown repeatedly confronted GM managers with an obscure criminal law, Michigan Penal Code No. 328, Section 556, that made it a misdemeanor to “discriminate in any way in the payment of wages as between sexes.” But GM wouldn’t budge, with one manager telling Brown if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have any women working in his department.

When Brown took a position with the Michigan Department of Labor and Industry the following year, he investigated the Olds Motor Works for violation of the statute. By then, GM, in an attempt to comply with the statute, had parked St. John and others in a newly created “Women’s Division,” where they ostensibly did lower-skilled work like sorting bolts, but where they still found themselves bound to do more intensive jobs, such as making harmonic balancers. Most of the women bridled at the segregated arrangement and the continued low pay—76 cents an hour to a comparably skilled man’s 97 cents—and many women quit.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Brown dropped the investigation. At trial, St. John recalled the moment as a crucial turning point in rallying her fellow workers at meetings in their homes. In March 1938 they decided, as St. John put it, “to see Mr. Pierce”—that is, Barnard Pierce, a prominent, civic-minded Lansing lawyer.

a newspaper clipping of a political ad
A 1928 advertisement for Joseph W. Planck’s campaign to become prosecuting attorney for Ingham County, Michigan. The Ingham County News

Pierce and his partner, Joseph Planck, had made headlines in the local papers as successful trial lawyers but weren’t known as civil rights specialists. Nonetheless, the pair devised a legal maneuver to transfer 28 other women’s claims to St. John, then filed a lawsuit that prefigured modern class actions. Thus, on April 7, 1938, St. John took the unprecedented step of suing GM on her own behalf and that of her women co-workers for back pay. Never, it appears, had any group of women banded together in this fashion and demanded damages for lost wages. GM answered by pre-emptively attacking the constitutionality of the Michigan law upon which St. John’s case now hinged. An ensuing three-year legal battle culminated in the decision by the Michigan Supreme Court to uphold the 20-year-old statute, which no one had ever sought to enforce until then. Having ruled that St. John and company had standing for their suit, the high court sent the case to the Ingham County Circuit Court for trial, where the burden was on St. John to prove there was a pay disparity.

The trial began on June 2, 1941, before Judge Charles Hayden, in an ornate courtroom that today still occupies the third floor of the Ingham County Courthouse in the town of Mason, just outside Lansing. The women girded themselves for a trial that would consume six oppressively hot weeks, see some 70 witnesses testify and receive in evidence more than 10,000 exhibits.

Beginning with St. John, the women told of their pay history as compared with the men’s, of men and women side by side doing the same heavy and technically demanding work, of the cooperative atmosphere on the production floor. St. John and Merreta Cobb told the judge how they had to do their heavy assembly work at unimaginable speed, cranking out one harmonic balancer about every 30 seconds to meet their quota of up to 105 an hour.

“It was one of the heavier operations,” their foreman admitted at the trial, referring to the harmonic balancers—an admission that undermined GM’s claim that women did only lighter work, thus meriting lower pay.

As the days wore on, the women watched numerous GM foremen and managers testify that men were more versatile, stronger, able to work longer and at night, easier to train and more mechanically inclined. The managers said St. John and other women had complained about the difficulty of their jobs; that foremen had ordered women not to lift heavy loads; that the company had hired men whose only job was to help the women. The women even had a hot plate in a break room, the managers protested—which GM had reluctantly allowed the women to use after St. John had smuggled it in.

GM’s lawyer Jacob Tolonen argued strenuously, week after week, that the plaintiffs couldn’t prove they were paid less on the basis of sex because, he claimed, they weren’t. Finally, Planck convinced Judge Hayden to make GM cough up payroll records, initially withheld to protect GM’s right against self-incrimination. “Court was delayed a half-hour while the cartons of time and rate cards, cancelled checks and other pertinent material was carried up three flights of stairs,” the Lansing State Journal reported.

The proof of pay discrimination was thus laid bare on counsel’s table. Judge Hayden found for the plaintiffs, and on May 29, 1942, the case made national news. “29 Women Win $55,690 in Wage-Equality Ruling,” the New York Times announced.

a postcard showing an aerial view of an automobile factory
A vintage postcard offers an aerial view of the Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan, around the time of St. John’s lawsuit. Detroit Public Library

Three years of GM appeals later, on January 2, 1945, the women were awarded $55,690—close to a million dollars in today’s money. By then, the plant had been refitted for war production, and equal pay for women at America’s wartime factories had been the rule since 1942. That groundbreaking feat was made possible by Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon and Mary Anderson of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., who used St. John’s court victory to convince the War Labor Board to equalize pay rates between men and women, which it did on November 24 of that year.

David Engstrom, a professor at Stanford Law School, who brought the case back to light in 2017 while tracing the origins of employee class-action lawsuits, outlined in a 2018 Stanford Law Review article how St. John’s remarkable success inspired other women in Michigan to sue for wage discrimination, and spurred legislatures in 21 other states to pass wage-equality bills before the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Of all the states’ bills, however, Engstrom found that only two—Massachusetts in 1945 and Oregon in 1955—actually offered provisions that would allow women to sue for equal pay in court. At the time, many labor leaders saw courts as a threat to unions’ sovereignty in the workplace, Engstrom writes, and therefore lobbied against many of these bills. Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, writes that after World War II, employers and lobbyists for business groups also played a role in weakening equal pay laws at both the state and federal level.

Engstrom says revisiting St. John’s case can help scholars and policy makers better understand the roles women and organized labor can play in defending workers’ rights. Though he has written that it was “almost certainly…the first significant damages payout in a job discrimination case in the case history of U.S. law,” Engstrom says that Florence St. John v. General Motors Corporation has limited value as a legal precedent for civil rights lawyers today because it is confined to Michigan law. It was also curiously forgotten, including by the media: When the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recompensed an underpaid typist in 1968 who had been denied a promotion at one of GM’s parts manufacturers, the Detroit Free Press declared, “She Wins $885 and Makes History.” St. John died two years later, on December 21, 1970. Engstrom imagines that sometime during those two years, as a recently widowed snowbird returning to Michigan from Daytona Beach to visit her two grown daughters, St. John may have seen the Detroit Free Press headline and smiled.

Preview thumbnail for Subscribe to <i>Smithsonian</i> magazine now for just $12

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12

This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine

The Changemakers

The Women's Bureau in D.C. helped expand rights for millions of women

By Sonya Maynard

Mary Anderson, 1872-1964

None
(VCU Libraries)
She directed the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, where she campaigned for equal pay and equal opportunities on behalf of more than six million women who took jobs in factories during World War II.

Mary van Kleeck, 1883-1972

None
(Library of Congress)
A tenacious researcher, Van Kleeck published a groundbreaking report in 1918 that laid bare women’s overlong, underpaid hours. It was later adapted into the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage and a standard workweek and outlawed child labor.

Frieda Miller 1889-1973

None
(Wiki Commons)
As director of the U.S. Women’s Bureau from 1944-1953, Miller saw that many women wanted to keep working when men came home from World War II, and she helped them realize that dream. As a result, while 3.25 million women did lose their jobs at the end of the war, 2.75 million found new work.

Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon, 1890-1979

None
(VCU Libraries)
Raised a Quaker in Virginia, she became chief of the Women’s Bureau’s Economic Studies Section in the 1940s, compiling dozens of reports, one of which spurred laws in several states extending minimum wage and maximum-hour protections to minority women in service industries.

Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, 1919-1989

None
(Getty Images)
Koontz is best known as a pioneer for equality in education. She served as the first Black head of the National Education Association, where she established the teaching union’s Human and Civil Rights Division. In 1969, she became the first Black director of the U.S. Women’s Bureau.