Forward and Toe to Toe: How Ginger Rogers Took on the Hollywood Wage Gap and Won


In her 1991 autobiography Ginger: My Story, Ginger Rogers didn’t mince words: “It was tough being a woman in the theatrical business in those days…women were not allowed in the production department or in the directorial field. We had script girls, dress fitters, costume designers, and stand-ins, but no women were on the cameras or operating the sound boom, or, indeed, working on any of the sound equipment. There were no women set designers, nor were females allowed to act as assistant directors or directors.” In 1982, a comic strip summed up Hollywood sexism in one memorable phrase: “Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels!”

Ever since, versions of the saying have permeated pop culture, college classrooms and even political discourse. (Barack Obama used it this year regarding Hillary Clinton’s hard-fought 2008 primary race, and Ann Richards elicited rousing applause when she dropped it into her 1988 Democratic National Convention speech.) Its meaning is clear: Women have to work twice as hard and deal with more challenges than their male counterparts to receive the same (or sometimes less) credit for their work.

Although Rogers has become inextricably linked to the line—her legacy even defined by it—it’s much more than an empty slogan: Rogers embodied it in her actions. Her experiences confronting the rampant sexism of male-dominated Hollywood demonstrate the fierce independence and feminist ideals of one of its biggest stars, and draw attention to an issue that is, unfortunately, still strikingly relevant today.

SHALL WE DANCE, Ginger Rogers, 1937
Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance (1937).

To have a voice as an actress often meant finding a male champion, a personal Lorax to fight for your interests. That wasn’t always easy. By 1937, Rogers and her frequent costar, Fred Astaire, had made seven films for RKO in the span of four years, including such hits as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936) and Swing Time (1936). The pairing was a huge success for the studio. But despite Rogers’s obvious box office value, the rewards were slow coming. “I had to fight for my rights every inch of the way,” Rogers recalled. “It wasn’t considered ‘ladylike’ to talk about money, but when you’re a lady earning her living, the subject becomes exceedingly significant and well worth discussing.” Last fall, Jennifer Lawrence echoed this thought in an article for Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham’s weekly newsletter, about the ongoing wage gap in Hollywood.

Even with the small pay bumps that came with her rising popularity (her weekly salary increased from $1,100 in 1934 to $3,000 in May 1937), Rogers’s compensation was still far below that of her male costar. In 1937 Rogers earned $124,770 to Astaire’s $211,666—a disparity that can be explained, at least in part, by Astaire’s stake in his films’ profits, a clause that never made it into Rogers’s contract—and when she tried to negotiate with RKO studio heads, The New York Times characterized her contract demand as threatening a “rebellion.”

Rogers had no doubt that this discrepancy was gender-based. “When Fred Astaire made his demands to the front office,” Rogers said, “his requests were honored, while mine were attributed to ‘greed’ or ‘ego.’” It’s yet another thought echoed by Lawrence’s article—that a man’s contract and salary negotiations earn him respect, while a woman’s earn her criticism. Even more telling? Rogers and Astaire had the same agents.

“They smiled at me and patted me on the head, as you would a three-year-old.”

When she appealed to her agents, Leland Hayward and Myron Selznick, to assist her in fighting for a more equal contract, she was “dismissed with advice like ‘Let sleeping dogs lie,’ or ‘Don’t upset the apple cart.’” As Rogers recalled decades later, “They smiled at me and patted me on the head, as you would a three-year-old.”

With so much male resistance against her, Rogers could easily have taken their advice and given up the fight. But that’s not what happened. With the same strong-willed tenacity that characterized her work ethic, Rogers battled the studio executives toe to toe, backed by her mother, Lela, her closest advisor in all aspects of her life. These two determined women fought for better pay, more personal time, and better treatment from directors and producers.

Little by little, Rogers won victories against the studio heads. In 1938 her weekly salary increased to $4,000, and she managed to work other stipulations into her revamped contract (such as the timing of costume fittings that would allow her to be home before 9 p.m.). Four years and one Oscar later, Rogers was named one of the 10 highest-paid Americans, earning $355,000 in 1942. A determined woman, Rogers fought for respect and equality when every man around her was telling her to sit down, shut up, don’t upset the apple cart. She upset it anyway.


Photos: Everett Collection