Here’s To The Next Lilly Ledbetter

By Audrey Fisch

Remember Lilly Ledbettter, the production supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant who, upon retirement, discovered that her male peers earned much more than she did? Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month; the lowest-paid male manager received $4,286 per month, the highest-paid $5,236.

At age 60, Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which eventually led to a lawsuit. She won $3.6 million but lost on appeal in 2007 when the Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter needed to file her lawsuit within 180 days of the date that Goodyear initially paid her less than her male colleagues, even though she didn’t learn of the pay disparity until many years later.

On Jan. 29, 2009, in his first piece of legislation, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Ledbetter Act in effect overturns the Supreme Court decision and restores to workers the ability to bring pay-discrimination claims to court. Unfortunately, it was too late for Ledbetter.

And let’s be clear that while the Ledbetter legislation is an important victory, it hardly ensures fair pay. Women who work full time earn, on average, only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. The American Association of University Women found in its 2007 Report, Behind the Pay Gap, that, notwithstanding factors such as training, parenthood and hours worked, college-educated women still earn less than men – even with the same college major and occupation as their male counterparts. In fact, just one year out of college, women working full time with the same major and in the same field already earn less than their male peers. Ten years after graduation, the pay gap widens; women earn far less than men.

So, while the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act means that, unlike Ledbetter, we have the ability to sue over these inequities, it’s not much consolation. After all, who wants to celebrate the right to file a lawsuit? Who wants to be the next Lilly Ledbetter and take on this battle?

But we must. Most of us are already like Lilly Ledbetter, being paid far less than our male peers. For the average woman, the pay gap translates to a lot of lost earnings of $10,849 a year or $430,000 a lifetime.

Perhaps the next Lilly Ledbetter won’t have to sue. Perhaps her government will have addressed this injustice.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, an update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (1963!) would begin to deal with the pay gap in a more systemic way by, among other things, strengthening penalties for equal-pay violations and protecting workers who disclose their wages from retaliation. But the Paycheck Fairness Act is stalled in Congress, so I fear it won’t correct the next Lilly Ledbetter’s situation.

This year, during Women’s History Month, I hope our young women and men are learning what they need to about justice and change. I hope we are preparing our young adults to lead companies where workers are paid fairly. I hope we are teaching them how to speak out and seek redress when they see inequity.

One March day – some March day, young people will learn about our “quaint and odd” past, when work done by a woman was somehow, strangely, worth less than the same work done by a man. Let’s hope that day comes soon.

Audrey Fisch is professor of English and elementary and secondary education at New Jersey City University and a member at large of the American Association of University Women.

© American Forum and the National Women’s Editorial Forum. The National Women’s Editorial Forum is a project of American Forum dedicated to bring more women’s voices onto the op-ed pages. 3/12

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