Listening to Lilly Ledbetter: Fair and Equal Pay for Women

Last Friday night I attended the YWCA Lake County 35th Annual Women of Achievement Awards dinner. The YWCA Lake County is a multi-faceted social service organization that provides programs and services to over 30,000 underserved, uninsured and low-income women, children and families in Lake County, Illinois to help them achieve self-sufficiency and improve and enrich their lives.  This annual event reflects a legacy of theirs in honoring women with remarkable personal stories, outstanding accomplishments and leadership qualities.

The keynote speaker was Lilly Ledbetter. Prior to the event I knew who Lilly Ledbetter was, the brush strokes of her story, and that she was the driving force and namesake of President Obama’s first official piece of legislation: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act 2009. However I didn’t know Lilly Ledbetter herself, and I certainly didn’t know any of the personal perspectives, insights and emotions that are part and parcel of her journey. I felt honored to be able to listen to Lilly tell her story. I would like to share what I heard with all of you, in the hope that I can pass along some of her passion and motivation for change.

Lilly shared that until she got into her battle, she had no idea about how far behind women were. When the ultimate Supreme Court decision prevailed against her, it was no longer about Lilly Ledbetter. It was about every working woman in this country. Her decision to file the case in the first place was life changing for her. She had no idea about the road she would travel, the people she would meet, or how hard it would be. Even to this day she says: ‘I have a good story. The problem with my story is it’s everyone’s story.’

When the Equal Pay Law was signed in by John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lilly was so excited. She lives by the principle ‘If it’s right, it’s right; if it’s wrong, it’s wrong.’ She believed this was the time of making things right. This was the time when an hour worked was equal for all in terms of a dollar earned. In her words ‘…women are good with right.’ The problem was that no-one ever enforced the laws. It took Lilly, a landmark lawsuit, wins, losses, elation, heartbreak, unwavering commitment, perseverance and forty years to move closer to making things right.

[text_box class=”grey”] ‘I have a good story. The problem with my story is it’s everyone’s story.’ [/text_box]

Lilly Ledbetter was born in a house with no running water or electricity in the small town of Possum Trot, Alabama. She always believed that she was destined for something more, and in 1979, with two young children at home and over the initial objections of her husband Charles, Lilly applied for her dream job at the Goodyear tire factory. Even though the only women she had seen there were secretaries in the front offices where she’d submitted her application, she got the job – one of the first women hired into the business at the management level.

Lilly did well at her job. So well in fact that in 1994 she was handpicked for a special team associated with a new venture that Goodyear was undertaking. So well that in 1996 she received a top performance award from Goodyear. She took pride in her work, she took pride in her success, she was proud of how she was regarded by her colleagues. So when she found a handwritten note on her desk, telling her that she was being paid 40% less than her male colleagues, emotions set in that went far beyond disbelief and shock. She didn’t think she could face the floor. She didn’t know how many people were laughing at her behind her back. She suspected at times that she might be making less, but never that much less. She also factored in that it wasn’t just her current pay that was the issue, it was her retirement.

[text_box class=”grey”] Lilly’s message to young women starting to work: ‘When you get a job just know retirement starts right then and there’s no catching up later.’ [/text_box]

To be on a journey like this, to fight a fight like this, you must have a family to love you and back you up every step of the way. Charles supported her efforts wholeheartedly. When she asked him if she should file a case, he asked her how soon they could get started. She started working with an attorney in 1999, and she signed with them on a contingency fee basis as it was the only way she could afford an attorney. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) told her she had one of the best cases they had ever seen. The trial started in 2003. Goodyear tried to paint her as a poor performer, and they also claimed they couldn’t find her personnel file!

The jury found in the plaintiff’s favor in the amount of $3.8 million. During the trial two courageous women testified on her behalf. When asked why they hadn’t complained before, one woman who was a single mom with a handicapped son, said she knew if she had come forward to complain she wouldn’t have had a job.

Lilly loved the headlines the day after the trial concluded – how they shouted out her win and the awarded amount of $3.8M. She never saw it. When all was said and done, all she got was $360,000. Goodyear appealed, and they won. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where she lost again. The court ruled that she should have filed suit within 180 days of her first unequal paycheck – despite the fact that she had no way of knowing that she was being paid unfairly all those years. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, when reading her dissent from the bench, urged Lilly to fight back.

Lilly’s husband had been with her every step of the way on this journey. However, when Lilly’s case was heard in the Supreme Court, it was the first time he couldn’t be with her for a major milestone. He had just had major surgery. And while he did live to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 election, he sadly did not live to see President Obama sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first official piece of legislation in 2009. Lilly had indeed fought back. She testified twice before the House and twice before the Senate. The Ledbetter Bill was passed in almost record time. She became the driving force behind legislation that is intended to change the story for other women, even if it was too late to change it for Lilly Ledbetter.

[text_box class=”grey”] ‘If I make a difference in just one young person’s life tonight it will be worth it to me.’ [/text_box]

As Lilly shared her story, she emphasized ‘…for me, from the time I saw that note, until even tonight, it was never about the money…This has been quite an honor representing these people across the nation…If I make a difference in just one young person’s life tonight it will be worth it to me…One person can make a difference but it does take courage. You have to be willing to stand up and take criticism because you will get it.’

Lilly has written a book about her journey – Grace and Grit – which has recently been translated into Japanese. She has also signed a movie contract. She is a tireless advocate for change, traveling the country as she urges women and minorities to claim their civil rights. However, there is still a lot of work for women to do with regards to this topic.

According to a Citi/LinkedIn Today’s Professional Woman Report released at the end of May, only one in four women had asked for a raise in the last year. However, when those one in four told Citi/LinkedIn what happened when they asked, 75% said they got a salary increase. And more than half received more than or equal to what they expected.

It’s very important that women have the conversations and do the research to establish what they should be paid to stay equal with their male counterparts and to take control of their total compensation – pay and benefits. It is equally important that we have the confidence to ask for what we want in terms of compensation. Don’t let any self-doubt creep in. Speak up for what you’re worth and negotiate. You will never know until you ask. Listen to Lilly Ledbetter: claim your civil right – fair and equal pay!

  • Ellen Turner

    Hi Daniella,

    Thanks for this insight article. I had heard of Lilly but did not know if she was still alive and active. What an inspirational story. Ellen

    • Daniella Levitt

      Hi Ellen. She is alive and kicking! She is extremely active, traveling and telling her story, talking to women, advocating for women. She is such an inspiration. I am delighted it inspired you! Cheers.