Miss Stanley’s bill, as introduced in 1944. (National Archives)

The woman who first introduced equal pay legislation in Congress ran for office on a campaign budget of $6. Her name — lost to history, overshadowed by Lilly Ledbetter and others — was Rep. Winifred C. Stanley. In 1943, just months before championing H.R. 5056, Stanley was named the best dressed woman in public life.

Margaret Kernodle, an Associated Press writer, reported that Stanley, “with a flawless complexion and figure,” won the Fashion Academy award because of the “all-purpose practicality” of her wardrobe, which included five wool dressmaker suits (black, navy, wine, powder blue and gray), six dickies (also in various colors), two basic dresses (navy, black), two evening dresses, and five pairs of shoes, four of which were “$3.98 numbers.”

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“I also have 12 hats,” she said.

Stanley, a Republican from Buffalo and one of the few women then serving in Congress, had quite a following in the press, though not because of her previous career as a tough prosecutor who fought for, and won, the rights of women to serve on juries in New York state.

“She’s a gal after the whole country’s heart,” Kernolde, the AP reporter, wrote in a series of stories chronicling Stanley’s life in Washington. “This Buffalo beauty is a tiny thing but figured to be whistled at….Her white hair calls attention to a ‘teen-age’ complexion worth coveting.”

Miss Stanley. (Library of Congress)

Stanley was folksy, too. She even washed her own clothes.

“Just like a lot of American girls,” Kernolde wrote, “she would consider it too extravagant to own enough lingerie to be able to wait two weeks or longer for it to come back from the laundry.”

It is impossible to know what “Miss Stanley,” as the headlines called her, thought of her press clippings. Looked at through a 2017 lens, the coverage is downright deplorable. What it concealed was a fierce determination to win the rights and status that men enjoyed. She lost more than she won.

Stanley was kept off the Judiciary Committee by New York Rep. James W. Wadsworth Jr., the man in charge of assignments, because of his opposition to women in the workplace, according to a House of Representatives history of women in Congress.

“A woman’s place,” he said, “was in the home.”

Stanley was assigned to the patent committee.

A year later, after galvanizing the support of women’s and civil rights groups, Stanley introduced her bill for equal pay, hoping to maintain, after World War II wound down, the “drive and energy which women have contributed to the war effort,” the House report said. The alternative, she said, was to pay “lip service to those glorious and fundamental guarantees of our nation’s heritage.”

The bill proposed adding the following paragraph to the National Labor Relations Act:

“Discrimination against employees, in rates of compensation paid, on account of sex is hereby declared to be contrary to the public interest, and it is the policy of the United States, so far as practicable, to eliminate such discrimination.”

The bill died in committee.

Nearly 20 years later, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act — an achievement for women that was chronicled on the “For and About Women” page in the Washington Post.

After leaving Congress, Stanley returned to New York and worked in the Dewey administration. Eventually, she returned to practicing law. And she never stopped the fight she started back in the 1940s, when she announced her equal rights bill.

“Merit, regardless of sex, should be the basis of employment,” she said then. “Jobs should be filled by those best qualified by ability, training and experience.”

Stanley died in 1996. Even then, her obituary in the Buffalo News noted her looks and fashionable clothes.

A history of the long fight for gender wage equality. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

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