Equal pay crusader on journey for justice
Lilly Ledbetter, whose name is on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that became federal law in 2009, talks with Duquesne University Law School Dean Ken Gormley as they walk across campus to the Power Center, where Ms. Ledbetter spoke Monday.
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Lilly Ledbetter's life vision back in the 1970s was much the same as many working women: get a job to help with the household bills, raise her children, build a nest egg and dream of retirement when she planned to read all the books she never had time for.
Instead, her tenacious fight to win the same salary as men at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. evolved into a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and landed her name on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that became federal law in 2009.
Now, instead of spending her retirement time on pleasure reading, she has written a book tracing her own story, "Grace and Grit," and she travels across the country to deliver lectures and continue the dialogue about equal pay.
Ms. Ledbetter brought her message to Pittsburgh Monday when she addressed a luncheon co-hosted by the Duquesne University School of Law, the Allegheny County Bar Association's Women in Law Division, and the bar association's Institute for Gender Equality.
Her speech came on the eve of a National Equal Pay Day, a public awareness event that marks how far into 2012 women must work to generate the same earnings as their male counterparts did in 2011.
"I didn't intend to take this journey ... but I'll be on this journey a long time," said Ms. Ledbetter, who just turned 74. Her audience in Duquesne's Power Center Ballroom included a sprinkling of men among the tables occupied mostly by female attorneys and law school staff.
The Possum Trot, Ala., native was a district manager overseeing 16 H&R Block offices in Alabama when she heard Goodyear was recruiting managers to implement a "team concept" at its Gadsden, Ala., plant.
"I wanted that job. I used their tires and it was a good job for a woman because we follow through."
In 1979, Ms. Ledbetter was hired by Goodyear as a first line supervisor on the production floor. Through the first few years, she said she ignored some behavior from male colleagues that might have been the basis of a sexual discrimination case.
"You pick and choose your battles wisely. I didn't want to make waves."
But when a male superior told her she would be out of a job if she didn't engage in sex with him, she filed a sexual harassment charge and the company transferred the man to a different area of the plant.
Then someone slipped her an anonymous note disclosing the disparity between her pay and male supervisors who had equal or less seniority.
In a recent interview with CBS Morning News, she said the tipster recorded her salary at $3,727 per month compared with $5,800 monthly for some of her male colleagues.
She was on the plant's production floor, she recalled, when it hit her just how much she had been shortchanged in salary, overtime and 401k retirement savings.
So in 1998 she filed a suit claiming discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and waited for nearly a decade as the case wound its way through the federal courts, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.
She retired the same year she filed the suit "and worked my case like a full-time job."
She said she never considered dropping it even though, "Corporations can wear you out, wait you out and spend you out."
In a 2007 decision, the high court ruled against Ms. Ledbetter, saying she should have filed her claim within 180 days of the time she began receiving lower wages than men -- even though she was not aware of the discrepancy when she started working at Goodyear. Later that year, a group of Congressional Democrats introduced legislation that would give workers the right to claim pay discrimination outside of the 180-day statue of limitations and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill President Barack Obama signed after taking office.
Ms. Ledbetter described the landmark law as bipartisan and said it "belongs to the American people."
Although she never recouped the lost wages from Goodyear, "I didn't care about the money," she said. "I went for what was right."
Among the lessons she has learned in her pursuit of fair wages: "The true test of the individual is not so much what happens to us but how we react to it."
First Published April 17, 2012 12:00 am