WARRENSBURG — Lilly Ledbetter insists it was never her intention to become the poster child for equal pay and women’s rights, it just happened that way.
On Wednesday, Ledbetter was the keynote speaker for the kickoff of Politics and Social Justice Week at the University of Central Missouri. Speaking to a crowd of about 150, Ledbetter told the mix of students and faculty how she went from being “just a southern girl from Possum Trot, Ala.” to having her name on the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“I didn’t want to start a crusade, I only wanted to provide for my family,” she said.
From 1979 to 1998, Ledbetter worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Alabama, moving her way up from being a line
manager to a job on the plant floor.
“I knew when I started that it was not typical for a woman to be a line manager but I had had experience fighting barriers that society puts on women,” Ledbetter said. “I worked twice as hard as my male coworkers to show I could carry my weight. It was a constant struggle; I dealt with sexual harassment, comments, propositions — you name it.”
In the early 1980s Ledbetter filed an official complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) when her direct supervisor told her she could either have sex with him or lose her job. After the matter was settled in Ledbetter’s favor, she continued to work at the company to provide for her family.
“I had two college tuition bills to pay for, a mortgage, cars and my husband was working part-time at that point,” she sad. “I couldn’t afford to quit.”
One night in 1998 Ledbetter said she came into work to find an anonymous note listing her salary and the salary of three men with the same job. Her salary was 40 percent less than the others.
“I was embarrassed, I was upset, I couldn’t believe it and I still had to work my shift that night,” she said. “I started calculating my pay and overtime, how much money I was missing out on and about halfway through my shift that night it hit me — my retirement benefits would be affected by this.”
With the support of her family, Ledbetter decided to file a complaint with the local EEOC, though the decision to do so was a tough one, she said.
“I felt like I sounded like a whiner, like a crybaby and complainer,” she said. “But I had been shortchanged and cheated for no other reason than I was a woman.”
Ledbetter sued Goodyear and her case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which denied her claim.
“Justice (Samuel) Alito said yes I had been discriminated against, but I waited too long to file the claim,” Ledbetter said. “I worked at Goodyear for 19 years and had no idea I wasn’t being paid fairly. I thought that wasn’t right. How was I supposed to know?”
Two years after the ruling, through lobbying efforts from Ledbetter and women’s rights groups, Congress introduced and passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed the Supreme Court’s ruling that employees had only 180 days after the disparity in pay began to file a claim. The new law starts the clock over at each paycheck, giving employees more time to file claims.
When the act was signed into law by Obama in 2009, Ledbetter was there, calling the moment an “out-of-this-world experience.”
“Watching him sign that law, with my daughter and grandkids in the front row, I can’t even describe what an amazing moment that was,” she said. “To know that with that signature what that meant for everyone who would come after me, that they would have a fair chance. There are no words that can describe it.”
Ledbetter told the crowd one of the things she was most proud of with the law is that it had bipartisan support in Congress.
“Equal rights isn’t a Democrat issue or a Republican issue,” she said. “It’s a fundamental American right.”
When she spoke with the Democrat earlier in the day, Ledbetter noted there is still work to be done.
“Women are still paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” she said. “If (the woman) is white and college educated that goes up to 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. We still have a long way to go toward fairness in the workplace.”
One change Ledbetter said she’d like to see is the reversal of some corporation’s policies prohibiting workers from discussing salaries amongst themselves.
“I’ve heard so many stories over the years from people who had no idea they were being cheated out of money they earned until they started talking about it,” she said. “I know people who were told they would lose their jobs if they were talking to others about what they were paid. That’s not right. Things should be out in the open.”
Ledbetter said she would “absolutely” fight the Fair Pay Act fight again and would continue to be a champion for equal treatment and pay among workers.
“When I started at Goodyear, I knew I wouldn’t be paid the same as the men, but I wanted to be in the same ballpark as them,” she said. “Turns out, I couldn’t even get to the gate.”