2012-04-14 13:00:06

The Feministing Five: Lilly Ledbetter

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Lilly Ledbetter, a woman whose story affects us all, recently came out with her autobiography, “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.” Her story is more important than ever today. Especially since women still only make 77 cents to every dollar that men make, even as we surpass them in institutions of higher learning. Especially since Gov. Walker (R-WI) recently repealed his state’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act and state Sen. Grothman backed him, saying “Money is more important for men.” And especially since this week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney replied, “We’ll get back to you on that,” on whether women should be paid fairly.

After nineteen years working tirelessly at Goodyear tire factory, Ledbetter received an anonymous note in her mailbox at work. The note revealed that Ledbetter was receiving thousands less than her male counterparts for the same work. After years of sexual harassment and intimidation at Goodyear, this was the last straw. She filed a lawsuit against Goodyear and, initially, she was awarded $3.8 million in damages by the lower courts. Goodyear appealed the decision, however, and her case was taken up to the Supreme Court where the majority devastatingly voted against Ledbetter. Ginsburg read her dissent on the stand that day, urging Ledbetter to keep fighting for justice and fight she did. In January 2009, the first piece of legislation President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stipulating that each person is entitled to 180 days after each discriminatory paycheck to file a claim–not just 180 days after the initial discriminatory paycheck was first received–which is what makes much more sense.

Her story is a reminder that a single person can make a difference–no matter where you’re from, no matter what your age is, and no matter how high your obstacles are stacked against you. It’s also an important reminder that it’s easy for those without the best interests of everyday men and women in mind to reverse equal pay laws and make it even harder to reach justice. By refusing to acknowledge and take action against discriminatory pay, employers and politicians continue to relegate women to second-class citizens in this country.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Lilly Ledbetter.

Anna Sterling: What pushed you to write this book and tell your story?

Lilly Ledbetter: It needs to be told because it’s a national epidemic and I’ve learned that it’s also international.

AS: What was the hardest part about writing it?

LL: Getting facts and figures. It took me nine years to get my final verdict–I had the data, the court trial and all of the history and depositions. It was a lot of work. It’s one that will let people know that one person can start a battle, but to win the war it takes a lot of people to get behind ‘em. One of my most favorite headlines reads, “She struck a nerve,” and I did. The men and women and the older generations–they understand it and they have woken up to how far we’ve got behind. This is not only hurting women and minorities, but it’s hurting our families and our nation as a whole.

AS: How far have we come in terms of pay equality?

LL: We haven’t come very far. In 1963, when the Equal Pay Law was signed by President John Kennedy, we white women were making 59 cents for each dollar that men made and today we only make 77 cents, so it’s almost 50 years old.

AS: What would you say to women who are suspicious of pay discrimination in their workplace?

LL: There are more women with higher doctorates and higher degrees coming out of college than there are men and there are companies out there that will pay and treat them fairly and what they’re entitled to. Those are the companies that these young women need to go into and work and they don’t have to accept less because they can get what they’re entitled to. Most of the large corporations and employers today are looking at their policies and procedures, recognizing that they need women on board to strengthen their company. It will not only strengthen their company and their bottom line and create a better product or service, it will also strengthen our communities, our state and our nation.

AS: Did you ever find out who wrote you that note?

LL: Nope, but it was some good Samaritan that had access to that information. People have asked me, would you rather they not have? I said, absolutely not. It was an injustice that I needed to know about and it has totally changed the direction and goals in my life. I get up every day raring ready to help somebody I hope not to make the same mistake I did. You see now, I have to struggle and to be able to do the work I do. I do it basically with contributions from people or people giving me little honorariums when I go and work for them, to pay my gas and pay my parking at the airport, because my income would not allow me to do that. I should be getting high Social Security and Goodyear retirement based on my pay, and I never got a dime. Even though the lower court initial award was 3.8 million. Justice Alito [in the Supreme Court decision] said I should have filed my charge when I got the first discriminatory paycheck. That is not the way that law was intended. It was intended and always been that way based on paycheck accrual. If you were still getting a check and you found out you were being discriminated against, you had 180 days from that time to file that charge and Justice Ginsburg challenged it. She read her dissent from the stand that day and challenged Congress to take up the ball. We lobbied in Washington for 18 months and I testified twice before the House, twice before the Senate, and I was there every week. I am so proud that this Ledbetter bill was a bipartisan bill because it does not belong to either Democrats or the Republican party. It’s a bipartisan bill, it’s a fundamental American right that each person is treated fairly and rightfully [gets] what they’re entitled to.

AS: What is the biggest obstacle to pay equity right now?

LL: Employers seem to be using the fact that, well, you know, we’re in a recession and scaring people. That’s one of the things that young people should not be intimidated with. Look at the whole story and get the facts. Don’t read the headlines or watch news. I tell people to research the employers and know where they’re going and how do they treat women, especially women with children. Do they have daycare, do they have sick care? What benefits do they have? The other people in these minimum wage jobs, we can do better there too. They’re the people doing the work and making the bottom line so successful. I want our employers to start looking at that: treating people rightfully and fairly. They will give more, they will be there, they don’t lay out, they are safe, they put out a better service or product. I go into places now and I’ll look at a person and I can tell you who the owner is. It shouldn’t be like that. It should be every person in there enjoys what they’re doing.

AS: What can we do to help with this issue?

LL: A great question. I got the answer on that one. Paycheck fairness will be coming back up real soon. Tom Harkins, the Senator from Iowa, he just introduced a bill with the National Women’s Law Center and the AAUW and all the women’s coalition in Washington, and a lot of the other groups are supporting it. We need those two bills passed. They should be zipped through the House and the Senate just like they had grease on ‘em. It’s another two items that are bipartisan and we can get those passed if everybody across this great nation will start putting pressure on the people that are selected from back home. I don’t care if they’re Tea Party people, Republicans or Democrats. They need to understand this is a family issue and it’s bringing the value of this country down.

AS: Who are your heroines?

LL: I tell you, one of the people I admire in history a lot is Eleanor Roosevelt. That lady was way ahead of her time. I’m a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, she took a lot of criticism and a lot of flak, but stood her ground and made a lot of headway. You know we women haven’t even been voting for 100 years yet. Senator Barbara Mikulski, she is the longest serving female in Washington. She was inducted into the [Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York] with me last year. She ramrodded the Ledbetter Bill on through the Senate. She is a staunch supporter of mine and I am of her because she does so much work for the families of this great nation.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

LL: I’d probably take water. Maybe chicken. I eat chicken a lot. There are so many women in Washington [I'd take]. For example, Marsha Greenberger with the Law Center and Lisa Matz with AAUW. And Jocelyn Samuels, she’s a lawyer with the Law Center. So many of ‘em. They work so hard. [Marsha Greenberger] means so much to me. That lady is quiet in her work but accomplishes so much and [these women] operate strictly off of donations. There’s so many people [I would want to take].

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