Ten minutes with Lilly Ledbetter

Famous equal-pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter was the guest of honor at today's NC Women United lobby day.

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Laura Leslie

Lilly Ledbetter never expected to find herself sitting in the grungy press room of the NC legislature.  Or any press room at any legislature, come to think of it.

"I never had great ambitions for being a public speaker," Ledbetter told me today. "I was planning to work, raise my family, save and build a nest egg, and retire and enjoy the fruits of my labor. But fate had other plans for this Alabama girl. And I just couldn't let it go."

Ledbetter, 72, worked for 19 years as a shift supervisor at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama. She was nearing retirement when an anonymous note let her know she was earning 29% less than her best-paid male counterparts, and 13% less than the worst, despite solid performance reviews.   

She took the company to court for sexual discrimination. The jury awarded her $3.8 million, but her award was capped by law at $300,000. She never saw any of it.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court overturned Ledbetter's award, 5-4. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said Ledbetter had no case because she hadn't filed suit within six months of receiving her first discriminatory paycheck, which she says was about two decades before she found out she was being paid less than her male peers. 

The law that revised the statute of limitations for discrimination suits, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, was the first substantive piece of legislation Barack Obama signed as President. Ironically, it didn't help Ledbetter, who says she hasn't received a dime in compensation from Goodyear and almost certainly never will. 

She says the pay inequality affects her to this day: her pension, retirement, and Social Security benefits are all based on a salary she says was unfair. "I will be a second-class citizen in Goodyear's eyes for the rest of my life. And there's nothing I can do about it."

Ledbetter was the guest of honor at today's NC Women United legislative lobby day, advancing an agenda that includes equal pay, access to healthcare, voter rights, civil rights, and economic help for low-income families. She commented on how few women lawmakers she saw at the NC Legislature.  But, she added, she's encouraged by growing support among men for equal pay for their wives, mothers, and daughters.   

For more, here's the interview. I'm sorry my questions are hard to hear: this was taped on the fly in the press room with one mike to work with, but I thought it was worth posting anyway.


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