TERRE HAUTE —
When Lilly Ledbetter learned she made 40 percent less than her male counterparts at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. — all of them production supervisors — she was devastated and humiliated.
Ledbetter, who had worked there nearly 20 years, decided to fight the injustice. And the rest is history.
Following her early retirement in 1998, she sued the company for paying her less than her male counterparts. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which denied her claim because she did not file suit within 180 days of her first paycheck.
She continued her fight for gender equity and, in 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which clarifies that discrimination occurs with each paycheck. It was the first bill Obama signed as president.
The law restored employees’ right to sue for every discriminatory paycheck.
Being in the White House as Obama signed the law named after her “was awesome,” Ledbetter said in an interview at Indiana State University Wednesday. “I knew that stroke of that pen would mean so much more to so many American families … because equal pay for equal work is a family affair.”
Men also understand the law’s importance, she said. “They have mothers and wives who are working and they have daughters,” and they want daughters to be paid fairly and equitably, she said.
That includes Obama. When he signed the law, he told those present that he “signed it for his grandmother, who hit the glass ceiling many times over, and his daughters, so that they never would have to hit the glass ceiling,” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter, who is from Alabama and speaks with a southern drawl, isn’t shy about what her long fight helped accomplish. “I am history. I’m not special, but I’m in the history books and will be forever,” she said.
But she knows there’s much work to be done, and she remains in the middle of it all. She speaks to groups and college students across the country and lobbies Congress for even stronger federal legislation to prevent discriminatory pay practices. Today, Ledbetter is known nationally as the face of fair pay.
“We definitely need the Paycheck Fairness Act,” she said. It would provide much protection, including protection from retaliation for workers who inquire about employers’ wage practices or discuss their own wages with co-workers. It also would deter wage discrimination by strengthening penalties for equal pay violations.
Ledbetter said the law that bears her name “doesn’t protect anyone from retaliation” if they talk or inquire about pay levels. “You can be fired,” she said.
The key to making progress in pay equity is having more women in Congress and state legislatures, she said. “There’s not enough women at the top.”
Women are still paid only 77 percent of what men are paid, according to the American Association of University Women.
“Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” Ledbetter said. When women aren’t paid what they should be paid, it affects them now and into the future financially in terms of raises, overtime, retirement and Social Security.
“It goes on the rest of their lives,” she said. “If you don’t get it in the beginning, you can’t catch up. Do the math.” It also affects their families.
When she talks to college students, she tells them to do their homework and make sure they get paid what they should be paid — right from the start.
Ledbetter tells them, “Research. Look it up on line. What is the going rate for that job you are applying for? Learn how to negotiate. Go to Start Smart classes that AAUW has.”
Wednesday evening, she spoke at Tilson Auditorium as part of the University Speakers Series. Her topic was “Equal Pay for Equal Work.” She also spoke to students earlier in the day.
Recently, Ledbetter attended Obama’s State of the Union address, sat down for a live interview on MSNBC, met with 15 U.S. senators and answered question before dozens of House Democrats. She lobbied with AAUW and coalition partners to secure two new cosponsors for the long-stalled Paycheck Fairness Act, according to the AAUW website.
She continues her fight for pay equity.
“My goal in life now is to make a difference in somebody’s life every day, because what happened to me and my family shouldn’t have happened to anybody in this country,” Ledbetter said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.