This is a story about value judgments. About men's work and women's work. And about how the average woman is worth more to her employer than the numbers that come up on her paycheck.
It begins way back in the days when "equal pay for equal work" was a nice and comfortable slogan. Only the worst antediluvian - the sort of person who would make George Bernard Shaw look like a feminist - believed that a man and a woman standing side by side doing the same job should be paid differently.
So the notion was that if women put all of their efforts into integrating jobs and enforcing the Equal Pay Act, all would be right, or at least fairer, in the work world.
But something happened on the way to employment equality. Men and women who did the same work began to get more nearly the same pay. But the gap between the wages of men and the wages of women kept growing until today women earn less than 60 percent of what men earn.
In this, the year of backlash and Bakkelash, only a small proportion of women do the same work as men. Only a tiny number have integrated - with fanfare and front-page stories - the non-traditional jobs held by men.
For every first women construction worker there are thousands of secretaries. For every first woman electrician and first left-handed, blue-eyed female bus driver there are hundreds more working on a line with other women like them. In fact, 80 percent of the women in the country work in 25 job categories, and those are over-whelmingly "women's jobs."
And so, those who want to improve women's lives by improving their paychecks, those who are looking for equity, have begun shifting their emphasis. They are less ardent about trying to urge women out of the jobs they hold - and often like - and more concerned with getting women's jobs reevaluated according to their 'real worth'.
The hottest issue now among the advocates and organizers from Seattle to Chicago to Washington, where the National Commission on Working Women held a conference last week, comes wrapped with a new slogan: "Equal pay for work of comparable worth."
Four years ago in Seattle, the state was paying parking-lot attendants more than secretaries. More recently, in the Midwest, a hospital was sued for paying psychologists more than psychiatric nurses. Today, the U.S. Department of Labor ranks child-care workers on a par with dog-pound attendants. And in factory after factory across the country, men who lift weights, however infrequently, are paid more than women who do delicate hardwork.
These facts raise basic questions about our sense of worth. As Ronnie Ratner of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women said in Washington: "We are not only trying to eliminate this wage gap, but to place a different value on the work women do in society."
A variety of groups are trying to assess, catalogue and equate the apples and oranges of the workplace. They are asking: Where was it writ that a clerical worker is worth less to a company than a truck driver? Where was it writ that manual labor is worth more than mental labor (except, of course, among executives)? Is the invisible hand of Adam Smith really an indelible marker on unequal paychecks?
In the marketplace, women's work has been paid poorly because women were doing it. Employers paid them less than men because they would work for less because they couldn't get any more - the class cycle of the poor.
But now, people working on "comparable worth" issues are trying to reevaluate jobs without regard to the sex of the worker, to rank them according to their "worth" and then insist on appropriate pay.
It's a far more difficult task than the first one. The notion of paying people according to any standard other than that of the marketplace is a daring one. We don't pay anyone in society - housewives or clergy - according to what we say they are worth. We pay them "what the market will bear."
If assessing "comparable worth" is hard, getting paid equal paychecks is going to be even harder. It will take more than the consciousness-raising, more than careful point systems, more even than the litigation and the best wishes of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
It will require increased organization and clout among women workers themselves. If there is one slogan that underlines all the rest it's the simplest one: "Equal pay for equal power."