Is Lilly Ledbetter a familiar name, but you can’t put a finger on why? In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into legislation the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – landmark legislation that widened the opportunity for women to demand equal pay. Just who is the woman behind the Act?
Lilly Ledbetter’s story is one of perseverance in the face of adversity. Born in a small town in Alabama in 1938, she lived in a home with no running water or electricity. Without a college degree, Ledbetter got some accounting training and worked in various office manager roles for businesses in Alabama.
In 1979, with two small children at home, Ledbetter yearned for more in her career so she applied for a job at the local Goodyear tire plant and became one of its first female supervisors.
She had been working at Goodyear for almost 20 years when she received an anonymous note divulging that she was getting paid a fraction of men in less senior roles.
Emboldened by the inequity, Ledbetter sued Goodyear in 1998, and a jury found the company guilty of pay discrimination and awarded her more than $3 million. However, the U.S. Supreme Court later threw out her case, stating that she should have filed suit within 180 days of the first time she was paid less than her male colleagues.
Even though Ledbetter did not know until close to her retirement that the discrimination had occurred over several years, the Supreme Court’s ruling specified that she waited too long to file the complaint, with Justice Alito stating that “the passage of time may seriously diminish the ability of the parties and the factfinder to reconstruct what actually happened.”
Fast forward to 2009, and Lilly Ledbetter’s long struggle was recognized and rewarded. After Barack Obama became President in 2009, the first legislation he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which re-set the clock on the statute of limitations for filing pay discrimination complaints.
At the time, Obama said, “It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – we are upholding one of this nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and that each deserves a chance to pursue our own version of happiness.”
As Ledbetter said, “Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of. In fact, I will never see a cent. But with the President’s signature today, I have an even richer reward.”
Not only did Ledbetter receive the satisfaction she had so long been denied, but women who have come after her now have more opportunity to demand equal pay for equal work. That is an outcome you cannot put a price on.