Lilly Ledbetter Hasn’t Given Up on Fair Pay — and Neither Should We
Lilly Ledbetter refuses to accept “that’s just the way it is” as a reaction to the gender pay gap. Just ask dozens of members of Congress, certain CEOs, and even her taxi drivers. On a plane she’s likely to pull out a copy of her book and encourage seatmates to read a few pages.
“I don’t back down anywhere,” she said when I spoke with her recently.
That attitude plus heavy doses of intelligence, wit, and Southern charm represent some of the many reasons Ledbetter is known nationally as the face of fair pay, the poster child of equal pay, or if you’re the checkout guy at Costco, “the equal pay lady!”
For all these reasons, AAUW was proud to host Ledbetter’s trip to Washington, D.C., this week for the fifth anniversary of her namesake law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter attended the State of the Union, sat down for a live interview on MSNBC, met with 15 U.S. senators, answered questions before dozens of House Democrats, and spoke on a call with members of Congress and 16,000 activists.
She lobbied with AAUW and coalition partners to secure two new co-sponsors for the long-stalled Paycheck Fairness Act. After meetings with Ledbetter, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) signed on to the bill — leaving only a few Senate Democrats not on the bill. When it comes to fighting for working families, Ledbetter is a pro, and she never gets nervous.
“If you know what you’re talking about, you’re OK,” she said. “I don’t have anything to be embarrassed about.”
Ledbetter’s fight for fair pay began with an anonymous note. After almost 20 years of working at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., she received a note revealing that she, the only female supervisor, was being paid 40 percent less than her male peers were. Ledbetter filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in 1998 that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to have the court say in 2007 she had been paid unfairly long enough to make it legal.
“The court said it was my fault that I hadn’t figured out I was being paid less than a man,” Ledbetter said. “Yet I was told that if I discussed my pay, I wouldn’t work there anymore.”
Ledbetter joined AAUW to lobby Capitol Hill for a legislative fix to the court’s decision. Five years ago this week, Ledbetter and AAUW were in the room when newly elected President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, thereby restoring employees’ right to sue for every discriminatory paycheck. Despite the historic legislative victory, Ledbetter was just getting started.
In the last five years, she has traversed the country telling her story to urge members of Congress to act on fair pay and to try to help elect those who will act. She serves as the honorary public policy chair for AAUW in her home state of Alabama. This week in D.C., she spent more time on Capitol Hill than in her hotel room.
“Congress has not passed anything since the Ledbetter bill that has helped the income of the American family,” she said last night. “I want to renew the fight for paycheck fairness and other progress for families across the country.”
Two new co-sponsors of the Paycheck Fairness Act is a start, and Obama announced at the State of the Union this week that he will use an executive order to raise the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts. The way Ledbetter sees it, the president should also use his administrative power to issue an executive order that would protect federal contract workers from retaliation if they discuss salary or wage practices.
Ledbetter works with AAUW to champion this executive order because it gets to the heart of her issue — Goodyear is a federal contractor — and because of all the women who have told her their unfair pay stories over the years. In particular, she hears stories of women who didn’t file charges or didn’t speak up because they wouldn’t be able to pay the bills if they were retaliated against or fired.
“Everybody has a story,” she said.
In typical Ledbetter fashion, she has a joke ready for the too-rare occasion when she hears a story about a business putting policies in place to ensure fairness. “I ask for an application,” she said.
This good humor and resilience often cause people not to realize that Ledbetter never received a dime of the back pay she was owed by Goodyear. Today, her retirement benefits are 40 percent less than they should be, and she struggles just as many people in this country do.
Seven years after the Supreme Court’s infuriating decision, Ledbetter’s guns are still blazing as she leads the way on the fight for fair pay. She’s also advising young people to learn from her struggle.
“Make sure you start your employment history getting what you’re entitled to,” she said. “You’ll never get it made up.”