After working 19 years as a supervisor at a Goodyear tire factory in Gadsden, Alabama, Lilly Ledbetter received an anonymous note telling her she was being paid much less than her male co-workers. She made $3,727 a month; the lowest-paid man in that same position was making $4,286.
Ledbetter went to court and won. But Goodyear appealed, and the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter, saying she would have had to file suit within 180 days of first being discriminated against – even though, for years, Ledbetter had no idea her pay was less than that of the men around her.
Now, thanks largely to her efforts, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first bill signed by President Barack Obama after he took office in January 2009 — expands workers’ rights to sue in similar cases. Ledbetter continues to campaign for equal pay, raising money for women’s groups and lobbying for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would prevent companies from retaliating against workers who tell each other how much they are paid.
Ledbetter will never get a penny from Goodyear. The company never even apologized. "It was never about the money to me," she says. "It was simply I could not let a major corporation get by with doing me that way without standing up for myself. " Ledbetter’s car, which used to have Goodyear tires, now sports Toyos.
Ledbetter’s book about her journey, from her upbringing in the poorest county in Alabama to her national advocacy for fair pay, is being released Feb. 28. Called Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, it tells about her treatment at Goodyear, how then-Senator Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton took up her cause, and how she became a speaker at the Democratic National Convention.
Ledbetter, 73, spoke with One Thing New's Connie Guglielmo and Kimberly Weisul about equal pay, prayer, and payback.
You stood behind President Obama as he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. What was going through your mind?
It was just so unreal. It was so hard to believe that we had achieved that goal. I had prayed that this would be first bill that would get passed and signed after he was elected, and it was. I didn't want it to get lost later. This just meant so very much — not just to me, but to every working family across this nation.
What led up to that day?
After the Supreme Court ruling in May of 2007, there was just an outcry, an outpouring, of people objecting to the decision.
I testified twice before the House. I testified twice before the Senate. I stayed in Washington three or four days a week. I would go up on to the Hill, and I would go into people’s offices and lobby for the bill.
When we entered an office, the first thing I did was to tell my story, and to say what it means to a family for women to be paid fairly. It means your children have a better college education. It means they eat better food. It means they have a better house to live in; they wear better clothes. Their healthcare, their dental work — everything is better. It also boosts up the community, and it will boost the country. It's good all the way around. It makes sense.
I would leave some of those offices and the young assistants would be sitting there with tears running out of their eyes. They could think about their own families, their own children, and what this law would mean to them.
Some people would have given up well before the Supreme Court case, let alone after it. Why pursue this?
I gave it a lot of thought. The law was on my side. I had good attorneys. I didn't have anything to be embarrassed about. We actually won in federal court. But it was the Supreme Court that took a wrong curve. I had to bring attention to that, for the benefit of people who are still working.
These things occur in our lives — and I'm sure you've had this — where you just knew this is the right thing to do. I also put my trust in my faith. I prayed about it. The doors were open and it was something that was meant for me to do.
When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up in the poorest county of Alabama. My family did not farm, but my grandfather did. I had to chop cotton for my grandfather in the spring and the fall. I hated that type of work. I hated it.
My dream was that education would get me out of that. My dream was to be a lawyer or an engineer, because I excelled in math all throughout my school years.
What was it like working at Goodyear?
There were so many people looking out for me. It was a good job. It was a challenging job. It was one I was good at. I just had to be organized and know my stuff.
It was great. I loved it.
When did it first occur to you that you might have a claim for pay discrimination?
When I got the note.
Common sense told me Goodyear was probably not paying me exactly what the men were getting, because there had never been very many women that had my position, and most of them didn't last a long time.
When I was hired they let me know that if I discussed my pay, I wouldn’t have a job. So I had no way to know.
What was your reaction when you got that note?
I felt devastated. Humiliated. I looked around to see if anybody was looking at me, because I got the note out of my mail when I first got to work. I was facing a 12-hour shift that night. It just really made me sort of sick that all this time I had been getting awards and being told I was doing a great job, and no one had ever said I wasn’t making what I should be. I had no idea how much less.
I thought, “I'd just like to go back home right now,” but I could not. I put that note in my pocket and I managed enough composure to work about halfway through the night, when it occurred to me [how much lower my retirement pay would be because of this].
I’m thinking about all of this lost money. All through the night, I thought about how hard it had been raising two teenagers, in college, and how hard they'd had it and how much they had done without. Not because I wasn't working, but because I hadn't been paid what I was legally entitled to under the law.
Your husband died before President Obama signed your law. What was his view of your fight?
He supported me from day one.
When I came home with the news [that I wasn’t being paid fairly], I said, “I need to file this charge, and I can warn you we’ll be in this for eight years.”
The people who argued against the Ledbetter bill, they said this is a lawyer’s bill dream come true. They would have all of these people coming out of the woodwork to file these lawsuits. Well, one of the Supreme Court justices even said — they might even use it like a savings plan. Well it's not a savings plan. These cases are hard on people.
It’s not about a big payoff. There’s not any big payoffs in a case like this. It is not a savings plan. I tell people if they want to gamble on a big sum of money to buy lottery tickets. You've got a better opportunity.
Have you ever met with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who wrote on your behalf in her dissent?
Yes, I have. The last thing on my bucket list was that I wanted to meet her. I was so delighted to meet her. We shared a little bit because we each had lost our husbands. Hers had been so recent. We shared so much.
Why are you lobbying for the Paycheck Fairness Act?
If this had been the law back in my day, I could have asked my co-workers how much money they made. We could have discussed pay. I could have discussed it with my superior. He or she could have told me without retaliation. And if there was retaliation, the law would have covered me.
President Obama gave you the pen he used to sign your namesake legislation. What did you do with it?
It and a copy of the bill are hanging in my living room, framed.
In my home, I’ve taken most of the family pictures down. I still have some of my grandchildren and children. But now I have pictures of Lilly and Barack Obama; and Lilly and Michelle [Obama], and Lilly and [Representative] George Miller; and Lilly and [Senator] Ted Kennedy; and the bill signing, and places I’ve been.
What was the best part of working for passage of this law? Of becoming an advocate for equal pay?
To be called — can you imagine, this girl growing up in Alabama? — and to be called and to get to speak at the Democratic National Convention during prime time, prime time, Tuesday, before Hillary Clinton and Senator Warner? That was a great experience. And to go to the inauguration.
But I guess the biggest moment of all was the bill signing, because the women’s groups [such as the American Association of University Women, the National Women's Law Center, which helped get the law passed], when I walked up to the White House that morning, they were hollering and chanting my name. My grandsons looked at me like I was a rock star.
All of those groups had not been to the White House in eight years. I felt like I had done a little bit of payback. – CG and KW
Images courtesy of flickr user House Committee on Education and Workforce Dem and Random House.