Twenty years ago in Jacksonville, Ala.,  Lilly Ledbetter was an ordinary woman who suffered an injustice that women across the nation and around the world face every day. In a lecture at Hamilton on March 2, Ledbetter recounted how her goals in life were simply to save and create a nest egg for retirement and for her children. Now, she is a noted advocate for equal pay for equal work and has commandeered significant changes in legislation regarding pay discrimination on the basis of sex, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that was passed in 2009.

The story Ledbetter shared is uncomplicated. She worked for Goodyear Tires as a supervisor for 20 years. She was hired in 1979 as one a handful of female supervisors. In 1998, Ledbetter found a note that had been anonymously left to her with her name on it and the names of three men; all held the same exact job position. The salaries of each person were written next to their names. Ledbetter said she was shocked to discover that her salary was substantially lower than those of her male counterparts, despite the fact that she had put in tremendous amounts of overtime and had performed as well, if not better, as the other supervisors. She’d even been given the “top performance” award.

Naturally, Ledbetter said, she was outraged, and decided to file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A few months later, a representative from the EEOC called Ledbetter and urged her to hire her own lawyer, as her case was perfect to take to court. She hired a lawyer, whose pay would be contingent on a verdict in her favor, and took the case to court. But to this day, she remarked, she has not paid that lawyer.

In the first federal court case, the jury found in Ledbetter’s favor. They wanted to award her $3.8 million. However, she was not entitled to any more than $360,000 since she could only pursue up to two years’ back pay. At the time, this seemed like a great victory for Ledbetter and for women across the country, she said. But Goodyear filed for an appeal, and the appellate court reversed the verdict.

Ledbetter appealed to the Supreme Court, who, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in favor of Goodyear. Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, stated that while he agreed Ledbetter had been discriminated against, she simply waited too long to bring the suit. In other words, she would have had to file a formal complaint after her first discriminatory paycheck in 1979 in order to qualify for compensation, even though she had no evidence at that point that her pay was discriminatory.

Ledbetter stated that she originally thought this wage disparity was only a problem in the South, but it turns out it’s rampant nationwide and around the world. Across the nation, white women make, on average, 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Black women make, on average, about 68 cents for every dollar a white man makes, Ledbetter noted. These discrepancies in pay are for the same job, and for the same amount of training and education. While some might argue that that’s not a huge issue, that 22-cent discrepancy compounds in every paycheck, in raises, savings for retirement and social security. What makes this worse is the fact that women are outliving their husbands by about 10 years on average, and most don’t have the savings to be able to live independently after retirement, and consequently have to rely on their children for care. Quite simply, Ledbetter remarked, “this discrimination goes on for the rest of your life.”

Justice Ginsberg, writing the dissenting opinion to Ledbetter’s case, wrote that “people do not understand what it’s like in the real world” and called upon Congress to “change this grave injustice.” Congress then held hearings, and Ledbetter testified on several occasions as to her case and her plea for change. At this point, she had already lost her shot for compensation, but she said, “It was not about the money […] it was about what was right.” Eighteen months later the “Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” passed through Congress and was signed by President Obama, with sponsors from both the Democrat and Republican parties.

Ledbetter has been speaking at schools and organizations since 2007, and she said she’ll continue to do so in hope that her lectures will raise awareness and encourage more women to get involved in politics, whether it be at the national, state or local level. She believes it’s wrong that when a woman becomes the CEO of a Fortune 500 company it’s still considered “news,” and it’s wrong that women generally have little presence in business and political spheres in general. Ledbetter encourages people to help each other, and to focus on doing what’s right, even when it’s hard to increase fair treatment in the workplace for everyone.

Ledbetter's lecture was sponsored by the Days-Massolo Center.

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