Leading the way to fair pay: Lilly Ledbetter wanted to ‘accomplish the American dream’
Mount Pleasant sophomore Alison Wilson expected Lilly Ledbetter to be a “hardcore law-type.”
After all, Ledbetter had been to the Supreme Court, testified in front of the U.S. Senate and had a piece of legislation named after her. There was little reason for Wilson to expect anything but someone out of the ordinary.
But as soon as what Ledbetter described as her “Southern drawl” hit the stage of Plachta Auditorium in front of about 850 people Wednesday night, Ledbetter made it clear she was just like anyone else. The only exception was that she knew how to put up a fight.
“All I wanted to do in life was to accomplish the American dream,” Ledbetter said. “… I lived up to my end of the bargain. My employer, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., never did.”
Ledbetter served as the plaintiff in the historic employment discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Ledbetter worked at the Alabama Goodyear plant for almost 20 years before discovering she was being paid thousands of dollars fewer per year than men who were doing the same work as she was. While her base pay was roughly $3,727 a month, her male counterparts were making upwards to $5,900.
“I was a second class citizen then, and I am a second class citizen today,” Ledbetter said. “That money is lost for myself and my family forever. It’s gone.”
She later filed a sex discrimination complaint and sued Goodyear for $3 million, which she won in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court would later overturn the ruling for reasons Ledbetter still struggles to understand.
“Look at Justice Clarence Thomas. He’s a minority. He’s from the South; he should have understood, but he went the other way,” Ledbetter said. “I’ll never understand his decision.”
Ledbetter continued to fight for pay equality, resulting in President Barack Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009, his first bill signed into law as president. The act loosened the timeline requirements for filing a discrimination lawsuit.
But, Ledbetter said that despite the small victories that her work and others have achieved for women’s equal rights, women are still far from equality. Women are paid only 77 cents per dollar that men make on average, and she said this statistic has not budged in the last 10 years.
“My story is not unique. I’m just the tip of the iceberg,” Ledbetter said. “There are wives, daughters, mothers, aunts (and) sisters who are still not getting equal pay.”
Ledbetter said the pay gap does more than just affect women.
“Every single person is affected by the pay gap,” Ledbetter said. “Men, women, entire families. When women are paid less, whole families suffer.”
Ledbetter said that many companies today still use situations including pregnancy or mothering to pay women less than their male counterparts. Ledbetter said employees today can no longer find this reality acceptable.
“We’ve got to correct this,” Ledbetter said. “There are too many women who are single and haven’t got a family, and there are women who are supporting a handicapped individual. There are women working two to three jobs. We don’t buy those excuses anymore.”
Ledbetter said her cause, ever since the Supreme Court decision, has been trumpeted by the media and American citizens. She said one of her proudest moments, alongside the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, was breaking the Twitter record for most tweets about an event for her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“I broke the Twitter record. I’m very proud of that,” Ledbetter said. “I don’t even tweet; I don’t even know what it is.”
Ledbetter said the future of the fight for gender equality relies on everyday people supporting each other, because not one person can fight for their own personal income equality without support. She said it also involves having voices heard in Washington.
“There are a lot of good people in Washington,” Ledbetter said. “There are also a lot of people we need to send home.”
Kathleen Kildee said she was inspired by the grit and determination Ledbetter displayed in her life and on stage.
“I really appreciated her persistence,” the Flushing junior said. “She was never going to give in.”
Mount Pleasant freshman Emma Bement was also inspired by Ledbetter’s story.
“She went all the way through with it,” Bement said. “She fought all the way until the Supreme Court. I think that’s amazing.”
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