BY AMY ROBINSON
It’s not a man’s job or a woman’s job. It’s a job.
That was the message from a national civil rights advocate Wednesday night in Mt Pleasant. Lilly Ledbetter has been pushing for equal pay for equal work since 1998. That’s when she discovered, through an anonymous note left for her at work, that she was not being paid the same as her male counterparts.
Lilly Ledbetter has talked to presidents, testified before congress and had landmark legislation named after her. No surprise perhaps that she easily filled Plachta Auditorium on the campus of Central Michigan University.
Hundreds of people turned out to hear how, after working for 19-years in management at Goodyear, Ledbetter learned through an anonymous note that she was earning roughly 40% of her male counterparts.
Ledbetter’s lawsuit against Goodyear took nine years to resolve.
“I thought about letting it go, I was two years away from retirement. I just couldn’t. That’s just not who I am. It was not right. The law was on my side. I had been mistreated, and I couldn’t let a major corporation do me and my family that way without standing up and saying ‘this is not right'” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter’s suit went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against her in a close 5-4 vote. It turns out the ruling wasn’t the end. Ledbetter, it seems, was just getting warmed up. The Alabama grandmother, who turns 75 next month, has become the poster child for pay equity. She travels the country talking to groups, like the one at CMU, about the need to fix a broken system that allows men to earn more than women doing the same work.
“Every single person is affected by the wage gap. It hurts women, it hurts men and it hurts their families. In the vast majority of families, both women and men are in the workforce, when women are paid less, whole families suffer.” Ledbetter said.
When Ledbetter began her fight, women earned, on average, 59-cents to every dollar earned by men. Today more than a decade later, women earn around 77-cents for every dollar earned by men. Still a 23-cent an hour gap. And that’s adjusting for education and career type.
“When women lost 23-cents, every hour, every day, every paycheck, every job, over their entire lives, what we lose can’t be measured in dollars. Women are a vital part of the economy, and deserve to be recognized for our contributions, just the same as men.” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter said progress on equal pay has been slow in coming. Recent paycheck fairness legislation; which would allow workers to discuss their pay levels without fear of retribution by employers, continues to stall in the US Senate.
Ledbetter said she’s proud that her namesake bill had bipartisan support. Pay issues today, she said are highly politicized.
She said there has been progress. The statute of limitations on lawsuits over pay equity was extended under the Lilly Ledbetter law.
“And another thing today, that I like and what I am seeing across the nation, is more women are supporting each other. In my day, even back in the early days at Goodyear, the few women that were there, they didn’t support me. In fact one of ’em threw me in. But that’s what they used to do, but now, today, women are understanding that they need to support each other.” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter is showing no signs of slowing down. Last year she wrote a book about her legal journey; titled Grace and Grit.
This year the book is being translated into Japanese. And she’s signed a contract for a movie based on the book She’s said she’s already spoken with Reese Witherspoon about playing her.
This gentle, fearless woman is intent now on taking her message to the next generation.
Students in Professor Laura Orta’s Women and Politics class at CMU, they invited Ledbetter in, also put to music the fact that they hear and support her work.