UPDATE 4/8/14: On Equal Pay Day, Key Facts about the Gender Pay Gap from Pew Research
UPDATE 8/24/13: Obama Touts Fair Pay Act at Historic Seneca Falls Site
UPDATE 6/10/13: 50 Years Ago President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal to discriminate against women based on pay.
Lilly Ledbetter is one courageous fighter. She was at the center of that historic discrimination case that inspired the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, the first official piece of legislation that President Obama signed into law in 2009.
“You should expect and get a good day’s pay for a good day’s work.” Lilly Ledbetter
Lilly has just written her memoir, “Grace and Grit, My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.” The book is the bold story of her journey fighting for pay equity that took her from Possum Trot, Alabama all the way to the Supreme Court and The White House.
STACEY: Everyone wants to talk to you right now. Have your ears been ringing?
LILLY: That’s OK. They’ve been talking about me for awhile. It brings up a great subject that’s near and dear to my heart….equal pay for equal work.
STACEY: You have been in the headlines with the whole issue of fair pay. You would think folks in Washington would all be embracing this act but instead there has been a lot of negativity thrown your way. Are you feeling that way?
LILLY: Absolutely. I wonder why. This equal pay deal was co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, and it’s bi-partisan. It’s for the entire country no matter what party you’re affiliated with. It’s for the American family.
STACEY: But they’re calling it a nuisance and a handout to trial lawyers. I’m not understanding it.
LILLY: Well, that’s not true. It cannot be a gravy train for trial lawyers because, first of all, in cases like mine, very few people can survive that length of time. I warned my family up front that it might take eight years, but it actually took me nine years to get the final verdict.
And it’s very hard on an individual, on their family. It’s very costly for a person like me without the money to finance a trial for this length of time. You’ve got to find a group that will take your case, what’s called pro bono, or on a contingency. They would have received 50 percent of what I got.
And I never got anything and never will. But the law was on my side. It covered my case. The Equal Employment people told me you’ve got one of the best cases we have ever seen, but we’re backlogged and understaffed. We would probably suggest a lawyer that you would get, and it would get it to trial sooner. That’s what I did. I filed the charge in 1998 and got the lawyer in 1999 working on my case.
We got to federal court in 2003, and after a week, the jury came back and found in my favor and awarded me 3.8 million dollars. I was only entitled to $300,000. Congress put a cap on what I was entitled to under Title 7 in 1991. You can only get two years of back pay.
So I left the courtroom with a verdict of $360,000, and I was still happy because this showed I had been discriminated against simply because I was born the wrong sex. I’d been born a woman instead of a man, and I made so much less money doing the exact same job that the men were doing.
“What we need are some more laws to strengthen our families because so many women are working…”
STACEY: And you never saw a penny of that money because they appealed the case as you detail in your book. You also wrote that when you visualize something, it will happen. Is this journey what you visualized, Lilly?
LILLY: It is except for this outcry now with the other party talking about whether they would repeal the Ledbetter bill. What we need are some more laws to strengthen our families because so many women are working strictly for their families across this nation. And in so many cases they are the sole breadwinner.
STACEY: How can we still be talking about whether men and women should get equal pay for the same job? It’s amazing to me.
LILLY: I agree. In fact I talked about it in 2008 and ’07 when I was touring the country talking about equal pay for equal work. I said that law was passed in 1963, Title 7 in 1964. Here is the big kicker. When that bill was signed into law. women made 59 cents to each dollar the men made.
Today we only make 77 cents to each dollar. We need progress; we don’t need to be talking about doing away with the little bit of progress that we do have.
STACEY: I’ve read a headline that says “Does the GOP Hate Lilly Ledbetter?” Do you think they do?
LILLY: I don’t know. But I can tell you this. This bill needs to stand. I told a college group last evening that one person can start a battle, but it takes a lot of people to win a war. A lot of people got behind the Ledbetter Bill and that is why it passed in 18 months. I was so thrilled it was passed by both Republicans and Democrats.
STACEY: With this debate going on, do you think that Governor Romney could become President with the support that he’s not getting from women at this point. And also if he were to become President, would the Ledbetter Act go away?
LILLY: I hate to speculate on what he might do. But there’s always that possibility, and that is why it’s so critical that I tell the people to start researching people, look at their records, where have they been, what did they do, and what did they vote for.
“Women are still lagging far behind. This equal pay law is 40 years old.”
STACEY: Do you fear a President Romney?
LILLY: I do, based on the recent outcry about women’s birth control, their insurance payments to get that birth control, and all women’s rights. Women are still lagging far behind. This equal pay law is 49 years old. It’s been around a long time. This is not something new.
STACEY: Your story begins in Alabama not that long ago. You grew up poor with a rough childhood. You talk about this decision to go to work in the 70s, and you were shocked hearing about the reaction from the bank teller when you wanted to open your own bank account. Why did you want to go to work?
LILLY: I had to. There was not a choice. And it takes two people in a household today to educate and raise a family in middle class America. Oftentimes, there are people working two jobs especially when they have young children in college.
STACEY: You went to work for the Goodyear Tire factory in 1979. It was a breakthrough moment for you. You quickly became management.
LILLY: That’s true. It was a wonderful job for a female. I felt like I excelled at it. They had not been accustomed to having women managers or bosses. The reason my peers did me in so often was that they were so afraid I would be promoted, and they would not.
That caused me a lot of hardship, but I kept believing that if I persevered and I worked harder and was smarter and proved I could do this job that I would be accepted. But I never was.
LILLY: Absolutely. I had asked my superior many times about it because I was approaching retirement. I said I don’t need to know what they’re making. I said I need to know if I am in the ballpark. I found out from that note that I wasn’t even in the gate much less the ballpark.
STACEY: Did you ever find out who sent you that note?
LILLY: No, but I’ll tell you what that did. That told me that all those overtime hours that I’d been working and trying to earn extra money for my children for college and education, that those payments had not been correct. And today my retirement, my 401 K, my contributory retirement, and my social security all are hurting.
When that person states the Ledbetter Bill is a nuisance and a hindrance, that’s what he wants to take away from the women and their families of this great nation.
STACEY: That’s a good point to make. Even though you fought at all those levels, you’re still not getting the money you are owed from all those years ago.
LILLY: That’s right. My social security doesn’t even come close.
STACEY: Did you get any money at all?
LILLY: Absolutely none. I’ve spent about $40,000 pursuing this over the years. I didn’t get one dime. They said the way it was presented they would also be taking the two years back pay. I should have gotten $60,000 for that.
“It’s a definite struggle. I frequently feel like a charity case.”
STACEY: That’s too bad because there’s the joy that you now have your name on a law but you were cheated so many years at the company and to this day.
LILLY: And it’s still a struggle. I frequently feel like a charity case because anything that I have to have done in my home, I have to go into negotiations because I can’t afford to call out someone and pay what my neighbor could pay.
STACEY: How did you get through this Lilly? This was years of struggle and you were married for 53 years. Was your husband, Charles, the backbone for you in of all this?
LILLY: He supported me but I was more or less the one who was the main leader. I grew up very poor. And the growing up years taught me there may be some light. You should expect and get a good day’s pay for a good day’s work. My husband died in December, 2008.
He had battled cancer for the last two years of his life with radiation and chemo. And that’s another problem. Life goes on. You have illness; you have weddings. You have holidays, but with a case like this you have to devote your primary thinking to it in order for it to come out right.
STACEY: When you attended President Obama’s inauguration, you actually got to dance with the President. You were a national ballroom champ, so that must have been exciting.
LILLY: It was, but I was in such awe of him at the time. His charisma and his ultimate respect for people is so overpowering. He said, “You know we’re going to do this.” And I knew he was not talking about dancing. He was talking about passing the Ledbetter Bill.
It was near and dear to his heart. His grandmother was by-passed many times at the bank. His mother was single raising two children. And he has two daughters. So he understood, and he was a Senator. He and Senator Clinton both worked on the Ledbetter Bill.
”One thing I learned on my journey, and it was so devastating to me, was how far behind we are in paycheck fairness…”
STACEY: There’s lots of talk about women in the headlines and in the political discussion. Do you think there is a war on women?
LILLY: I don’t understand why they’re bringing women into the headlines. Why are they picking on us? They should be supporting more things to help us. One thing I learned on my journey, and it was so devastating to me, was how far behind we are in paycheck fairness which has been around for 15 years.
If that had been the law, I would have known how much more the men were making than me. I could have corrected it, and then I would be better off today. The bill that Tom Harkin, the Senator from Iowa, has introduced that’s been being worked on for a long time should become law because this will help strengthen the American family.
LILLY: I hope they fear me because I’m dead serious about this. Anything that I fight for today will not do anything for me. My daughter is close to retirement in a few years. But it will help my granddaughter and working women.
STACEY: You just wanted the American dream and look at you now? You are this role model for so many.
LILLY: No, never would have thought of it. This was not what I planned out to be. And I certainly did not plan to have my name on a lawsuit that would go all the way to the Supreme Court and especially on a bill and then on to the White House and go into the history books.
And I just hope that Governor Romney will listen to what I’m saying, and he will leave the Ledbetter Bill intact. In fact, if he wants to be elected, he should concentrate on working on something else where the country needs it.
STACEY: What does your future hold at this point? You’re going to continue this fight, right?
LILLY: As long as my health allows me and people invite me, I’ll be speaking to colleges. I heard a student say on the campus I spoke to recently, ”Until I heard her (Lilly), I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but now I know where I’m going with my life and I know what I need to do.”
STACEY: So well said. You are going to be a symbol for many.
LILLY: I hope so. I tried to live up to that. I want this equal pay. The Ledbetter Bill only put us back to where we were prior to the ruling in my case. We did not gain one bit of ground, but it was important to have that bill. And there hadn’t been a lot of cases filed before; there haven’t been since. And this is certainly not a lawyer’s dream.
STACEY: Thanks for talking with us today, Lilly! We hope you continue to spread your message far and wide!
Lead Photo by Lance Johnson Studios