In the photograph, a slim blonde stands smiling just behind President Obama’s right shoulder as he signs a bill into law. It is January 29, 2009, and the bill—the bill the president chose for his first signature—is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.
That elegant-looking woman is Lilly Ledbetter, the bill’s namesake, who worked for 19 years as a supervisor at a Goodyear tire factory in Alabama before learning that she was being paid less than men for doing the same job—and who chose to take it to the Supreme Court.
Her memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, is a riveting read that not only illuminates the pitfalls women often face when they break into a male-dominated work environment, but also gives readers an appreciation for how physically demanding and dangerous factory jobs can be.
And Ledbetter did it all.
“Over the years,” she writes, “I’d done exactly what the men had done: I climbed the two-story buildings in the mill room; knocked down the lampblack from the boxcar into the giant banburies; started the dangerous conveyors, as wide as one-lane roads, in the rain and the sleet.”
Ledbetter, now in her early 70s, also shares her personal struggles. She grew up in Possom Trot, Alabama, where she picked cotton as a child; married before she graduated from high school; raised two children, whom she helped send to college; and is now a grandmother.
Most women who have been in the workplace for a while have witnessed or experienced inappropriate, sexually driven behavior in one form or another. Whether it’s unwanted attention to your appearance or an outright proposition, this behavior catches you off guard—makes you feel uncomfortable and even ashamed.
It happens everywhere. I spent my summers in college working as a welder in a local factory, but the crudest remarks ever sent my way were made by MBAs wearing expensive suits in the offices of a high-priced consulting firm.
For Ledbetter, an area manager at Goodyear, sexually inappropriate behavior—on steroids when compared with anything I’ve experienced—was a gauntlet she negotiated every day as she tried to do her job.
At her first formal evaluation in 1981, Ledbetter’s supervisor told her, “Well, I rank you an eleven out of twelve. If you want a better score, you can meet me at the Ramada Inn.”
After taking that in, Ledbetter asked him, “How can you do that, based on my performance?” His response? “In a place like this, Lilly, it’s more important that your bosses like you than that you do a good job.”
The next year, after she was demoted to another department, a colleague named Dennis started touching Ledbetter’s breasts. She complained to the powers that be, but it was she who was told to go home, while the perpetrator was allowed to continue working. That was when Ledbetter put aside the grace she’d previously used to sidestep abuse and turned on her grit.
“Something stubborn rose up inside me. These guys weren’t going to get away with this. I had as much a right to my job as Dennis had to his. As a little girl sitting in the dark movie theater while my parents shopped at Blackwelder’s grocery store, I’d seen hundreds of westerns starring Gene Autry. A simple lesson had been ingrained in me on those countless Saturday afternoons: The man in the white hat always wins. No matter how many times he might get knocked down and have to dust off his pants, in the end, the good guy prevails.
“I slid my hands under my thighs and sat up straighter. ‘If Dennis stays, I stay.’”
Then she went to a pay phone and called the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
Unfortunately for Ledbetter, and for many women who simply want to go to work and do a good job, there is no “winning.” The harassment continued and Ledbetter was labeled a troublemaker.
Then, in March 1998, she found an anonymous note in her mailbox at work that listed her salary along with the names and salaries of three other tire room managers, all men. The note confirmed her ongoing, nagging suspicion that she was being paid less.
Knowing that she had been systematically cheated was even worse than being felt up by her boss.
“That’s when I felt the shame, the haunting humiliation deep in my bones. As the numbers kept looping through my mind, I couldn’t shake the realization of how stupid I’d been to try so hard and think that it would pay off.”
She then documents her fight for back pay, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In May 2007, the court ruled against her, asserting that the statute of limitations (180 days from her first paycheck!) had run out on her claim. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent encouraged her not to give up. She didn’t. Instead she helped champion a bill that benefits us all and now bears her name. (The bill overturns the Supreme Court’s decision against her by providing a reasonable time limit for filing pay discrimination claims.)
Still, for Ledbetter, the repercussions of losing that court decision will last a lifetime.
“The real clincher,” she writes, “is that Goodyear continues to treat me [in retirement] like a second-class citizen because my pension and Social Security are based on the amount I earned—Goodyear gets to keep my extra pension as a reward for breaking the law.”
January 29, 2009, feels like a long time ago. Since then, there have been systematic attempts to eradicate gains that we women thought we were done fighting for.
Just this month, a bill that would bar companies from retaliating against workers who inquire about pay disparities, thereby opening the door for female employees to sue for damages in cases of paycheck discrimination, was blocked on a procedural vote.
Those of us who view fairness and equality as a basic right must once again dust ourselves off, don our white hats, and pin the shame on those who deserve it.
And as Ledbetter’s experience illustrates, we’ll need all the grit we can muster.
Making her case: Lilly Ledbetter enlightens a House committee on pay discrimination.