When we last left the First Lady of American Labor, Lilly Ledbetter was standing alongside the newly inaugurated President Obama as he signed into law his first bill, a piece of legislation actually named for her. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a landmark, acknowledging that women are likely to be paid less than their male counterparts for the same work and making it easier for them to challenge unequal compensation in a court of law.
Fast-forward three years, and now you can read the whole story of how that came to be, in a new book entitled Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond. Lilly tells her tale therein, with the aid of co-author Lanier Scott Isom, and tells it in a fine, vernacular fashion.
As was often the case growing up in rural Alabama, dreams were a catalyst for escape and hard work the fuel. Ledbetter makes the reader privy to all the dead ends she could have headed down in a world bounded by privation and patriarchy. Married young and the mother of two, she found out the hard way that a woman in mid-20th century America could not “have it all.”
When she went to work at Gadsden’s Goodyear tire plant in 1979, it looked like an answer to prayer. As it turned out, it was merely the stimulus for more prayer. An ambitious female in a hostile workplace, Ledbetter caught flak from union employees and company men alike, and a reader is amazed that she had the wherewithal to endure, let alone prosper.
There were workers who were willing to give a woman a chance, but this story elaborates on the misogynists arrayed against her. Sexual harassment had become so much a part of corporate life that when Ledbetter could take no more and chose to respond legally, even some female associates took the company’s side to protect their jobs.
Of all people, a man inspired her most to resist: a movie cowboy. “I’d seen hundreds of Westerns starring Gene Autry,” Ledbetter said. “A simple lesson had been ingrained in me on those countless Saturday afternoons: the man in the white hat always wins. No matter how many times he might get knocked down and have to dust off his pants, in the end, the good guy prevails.”
Lilly Ledbetter got knocked down a lot by her life and her work, but every time she got up, she was a little stronger, a little more able to deal rationally with the irrational environment at Goodyear. The psychological devaluation she experienced at the hands of management, though, was nothing compared to the fiscal. When she was tipped off anonymously in 1998 that she was being paid substantially less than her male managerial counterparts, she bucked the system and took action by complaining to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Ledbetter filed suit in 1999, but the trial did not take place until 2003. The book’s account of the proceedings does a good job of breaking down the complicated legal issues in the jury trial, which resulted in a multi-million dollar judgment against Goodyear for pay discrimination. The company got the decision reversed on appeal, but Ledbetter’s attorneys succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to review the verdict. Unfortunately for Ledbetter, in May 2007, the Supremes ruled 5-4 against her, claiming that she should have sued when the initial discriminatory pay decisions were made.
Fortunately for the cause of equal pay, the decision ignited a firestorm of activism that resulted in Congressional legislation to overturn the effects of the Supreme Court decision. Lilly Ledbetter was among many advocates tramping the halls of the Capitol to press for the ultimate passage of the Fair Pay Act in 2009.
Ledbetter, now 73, continues her campaigning these days for the Paycheck Fairness Act, a long-overdue update of 1963’s Equal Pay Act. Half of America’s workers are female, yet statistics show that they make only 77 percent of what men earn. (That’s white women, by the way; according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, black women make only 68 percent of men’s earnings and Latinas 59 percent.) Here in Alabama, a woman working full-time, year-‘round, makes on the average $31,121, while her male counterpart makes $41, 895.
A 2008 Barack Obama campaign ad featuring Lilly Ledbetter
In this election year, women face attack not just on the economic front. As you may have heard, the right of women to control their reproductive destiny has been put into play currently by politicians trying to spin it as a question of “religious freedom,” and once again we are obliged to consider those who assert the need for limited government trying to make a case for state regulation of female reproductive systems. It seems scarcely different from the good old boys at Goodyear trying to keep a woman in her place.
The woman who bore that brunt for 20 years joins her co-author for a reading and signing Friday afternoon at Jake Reiss’s peerless Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. If you haven’t had the chance to shake hands with a genuine heroine lately, meeting Lilly Ledbetter affords you that chance.
However, if you expect to hear any admissions of remorse or regret over the way things turned out, you may be disappointed. Twenty years of fighting for a fair shot in a man’s world have given Ledbetter a sanguine perspective, as she explained to the Charlotte Observer on the third anniversary of the Fair Pay Act’s signing:
“I’ll never see a cent of the salary I lost over all those years at Goodyear. My case is over and the Lilly Ledbetter law won’t help Lilly Ledbetter. But in recognizing what’s right and fair, President Obama’s leadership has given me a much richer reward: knowing that my daughter, my granddaughter and every other woman in America will never again feel helpless when they don’t get an equal day’s pay for an equal day’s work.”
The Alabama Booksmith will host Lilly Ledbetter and Lanier Scott Isom on Friday, March2, as the women read from and sign copies of Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond. A reception for the authors will be held at the Altamont School at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call (205) 870-4242 or visit www.alabamabooksmith.com.
Courtney Haden is a Weld for Birmingham columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.