Seventy-year old Lilly Ledbetter is no ordinary grandmother. Not only did the sprightly Southerner speak at the Democratic National Convention last year and dance onstage with the president at an inaugural ball, but the first bill President Obama signed into law bears her name. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signals the end of a 10-year struggle for the straight-talking Alabaman.
Hollywood couldn't have come up with a better tale: after working as a plant supervisor for the Goodyear Tire Company for nearly 20 years, Ledbetter was horrified to discover she was being paid significantly less than her male peers. She filed suit against her employer in 1998, and her case ended up before the Supreme Court in 2007. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court threw out her case, arguing that she should have filed within 180 days of the first time she received less pay than her counterparts—a decision many viewed as unfair, since it penalized an employee for not immediately realizing the discrimination was taking place. So Ledbetter took her fight to Congress. There she received support from many prominent members, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, and Barack Obama. The Act allows for the 180-day clock to be reset each time an employee receives a paycheck, rather than timing the discrimination from the first affected paycheck. It also cements Ledbetter's place in feminist folklore, even though she hasn't received a cent for her troubles.
Ledbetter, whose spirit and youthful looks belie her age, was in D.C. for Thursday's bill signing at the White House. At the end of this very long day, Ledbetter kicked off her boots, showed off the personally autographed Nina Totin' Bag she received from NPR reporter Nina Totenberg, and sat down in her hotel room with NEWSWEEK's Katie Connolly to reflect on her history-making battle. Excerpts:
How did you find out all those years ago that you were earning less than your male counterparts?
LEDBETTER: When we got to work each day most of us checked our mail and one day someone had sent me a note showing my pay versus three men, and we were all doing the same job.
When you initially decided to take this up with management, what was their reaction?
That I was listening to too much BS.
What drove you to take a stand against the management of this company, where you had worked for so long and given so much of your time?
It was very humiliating to learn that I was being paid so much less than my white-male peers for doing the exact same job and doing it well. Going back in my career, in the early 1990s I was selected to be one of the four managers to start up the light-truck radial division and then in '96 I was given a top-performance award. It was just very humiliating to realize that I had been so undercut in my wages.
I didn't want anybody to give me anything. I didn't want any special treatment. I just wanted the opportunity to have the job, to do the job and to get compensated. And really, had it been close, had it just been close, I would have probably not pursued it because when you get into a charge of this nature it's not a quick fix.
When you won the initial court case, did you think that was the end of it?
No I knew Goodyear would appeal. I knew that before I ever filed my charge. I knew that, regardless, if I won they would appeal. And they did. It went to the 11th Circuit and they threw it out. I was just so fortunate that my lawyers in Birmingham appealed to the Supreme Court. And when I got that call, that we were going to the Supreme Court, that was almost as good as a win, and I really felt that I had a really good shot at getting this through.
discovering you were paid less than your male peers, were equal pay or workplace equality issues particularly important to you?
They were always important to me because that is why I was working. I had been in management for a lot of years and I had always wanted jobs that were challenging and rewarding, and I thought that my job was one. I knew equal pay had passed in 1963 and I knew Title VII passed in 1964 or I never even would have had the job. And I really felt all throughout the years that I probably was being compensated within range because Goodyear was a government contractor.
This has been a
-year battle for you. Did today feel worth it?
Yes. And I would do it again. I would do it all over again, knowing exactly what I know. It was never about the money. I couldn't afford to hire an attorney. I got one who was pro bono. He didn't get paid either, nor did his firm. They invested a lot of money and a lot of time and put a lot of work into this. We won, we just didn't get paid.
This fight must have taken its toll on you in terms of stress and time away from family.
My family and I discussed it before I first started pursuing it and I had their support. Both my children were married and had their own families but I wanted them to understand what the implications and criticisms could be. Along the way my husband supported me 100 percent because he was a believer in what's right. If it's right, it's right. If it's not, it's not. I returned home in December after being in New York for a [current affairs show] segment and found him dead on the floor with a massive heart attack, and I'm just so sorry that he didn't make it until today.
That must be so difficult to not have him here today.
It has been.
Before signing the bill, President Obama said today that you didn't set out to be a trailblazer or a household name. How does it feel to be one?
Sometimes when I get introduced to organizations where I am speaking or doing something, I look around and it is hard for me to believe that it is me they are talking about. I felt that I was born in a good time where women could have good jobs and do jobs that paid better and were not just manual or secretarial or cleaning tables or whatever. I always wanted to achieve and be the best that I could be in whatever I wanted to. And I always wanted a job that was a challenge so when I got up to go to work, I'd be anxious to get there and have fun doing it, because whatever you do in life, you need to enjoy doing it.
What did you talk to the President and
I really think a lot of those two people. What he said today about his grandmother working in that bank and reaching that glass ceiling where she couldn't get any farther, you could just feel what he was feeling when he talked. And he talked about what he hoped for his two daughters—that they could work and be treated fairly. You knew that he knew exactly where I had been and the steps I had been walking.
When you hear the President and
say all these gracious things about you, what goes through you mind?
It really gives me a humble feeling, just to know that someone, just a working ordinary human being can make a difference. I always believed we could, I just never had anything that was so important to me that I had to speak up for. A lot of the times when we stand up and speak up for things, it's not the popular thing to do. And I can say that in my fight for the last 10 years, I've not always been the popular person. There are people now that will say negative comments, but you'll have that in anything. You could be selling pies and there'd be somebody [that would] not like it or it wouldn't be the right size. That doesn't bother me.
I read that you got to dance with President Obama at the first inaugural ball he attended. How was that?
Wonderful. I had no idea [my family and I] were going to get to go on stage. That was a wonderful experience for all of us. We were so thrilled.
So was he a good dancer? So what's next for Lilly Ledbetter? Are you going to retire and live happily?
Yes! Very smooth. I told him today, I said you're never going to believe that I had dance lessons. I used to do ballroom dancing competitions, as an amateur. My husband and I had to give that up a lot of years ago when his health got bad. But it was just such an honor to be there with thepresidentof all people and my feet just wouldn't hardly move!
[Laughs] No. That's not who I am. I still think I have a lot to contribute.
So what's next for Lilly Ledbetter? Are you going to retire and live happily?