Women of Influence: fair pay champion, Lilly Ledbetter

Lilly Ledbetter
[Photo Credit: Contributed]

One of the most inspiring stories in Alabama women’s history is Lilly Ledbetter — a fair pay champion since the late 90’s.

From her humble beginnings — in a house with no running water or electricity in the small town of Possum Trot, Ala. — Ledbetter became nationally recognized as one of the many faces of gender prejudice and sexual harassment in the workplace by the mid 2000’s.

A graduate of Jacksonville High School in Jacksonville, Ala., Ledbetter started working as a district manger for H&R Block in 1969 where she oversaw 14 locations in Jacksonville and the surrounding area. By the time she left the company, she was overseeing 16 locations.

While she was working with H&R Block, she also spent three years working at Jacksonville State University as an Assistant Financial aid director. “I would go in to teach classes, and do tax prep at night and on the weekend,” Ledbetter said. 

In 1979, Ledbetter applied and accepted her dream position as a manager at the Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. where she became one of the first women hired on for a management position.

She said she could go toe-to-toe with any man, doing any job at the factory, nevertheless she still experienced sexual harassment and gender prejudice. After 19 years of working with the company, Ledbetter received an anonymous tip that she was receiving thousands less than her male peers in wages.

Heartbroken, Ledbetter filed a sexual discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1999. Her case went to trial, and the jury awarded her $3.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages for the pay discrimination she had been subjected to.

In November of 2006, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court reversed the jury’s verdict, saying that because the company’s original decision on her pay had been made years earlier, Ledbetter’s case was filed too late, even though she continued to receive discriminatory pay.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Eleventh Circuit decision and ruled employees cannot challenge ongoing pay discrimination if the employer’s original discriminatory pay decision occurred more than 180 days earlier, even when the employee continues to receive paychecks that have been discriminatorily reduced.

“It was not fair, it wasn’t even close to being fair. We must go to congress, the house and the senate to prevent this from happening in the future to other females and minorities,” Ledbetter said in an interview.

And she did.

After realizing that the Supreme Court’s decision could undermined the Congressional goal of eliminating discrimination in the workplace, and after being called upon by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Congress and President Barack Obama‘s Administration acted quickly

Less than two years after the Supreme Court’s decision, both the House and Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. A crucial piece of legislation, restoring the longstanding laws that ensure individuals who are subjected to unlawful pay discrimination are able to effectively assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws.

Lilly Ledbetter Book
[Photo Credit: Contributed]

Ledbetter is still an activist today, spending her time traveling the country and educating women on fair and equal pay. “There’s still so much work to be done for women and their family’s,” Ledbetter said. “In 2020 women will have only been able to vote for 100 years! We haven’t even been able to even vote for 100 years and we still have so few rights that politicians want to do away with.”

“We have to pay attention, especially with things like equal pay, where there are laws in place, but no one is enforcing them. Women have to make sure they’re being enforced so they can take care of themselves and their families.”

Ledbetter is still  fighting for women and equal pay across the nation, but was kind enough to answer some of Alabama Today’s questions about her life, work, and influences:

How have other women influenced your success?

Marcia D. Greenberger from the National Women’s Law Center, was absolutely instrumental in helping me navigate the legislative and political events I attended. She jokingly told me that she was my “bag carrier” at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. I had never been in a large group of politicians like that, as I’m not from a political background, I had no idea what I was doing and she guided me like a professional. She has inspired me tremendously, and many other women have succeeded because of her.

Today Justice Ruth Bader Gingsburg is my hero! She has made a tremendous progress for women/minorities! She was the one who challenged Congress to change the Law after ruling in Ledbetter v Goodyear verdict.
Did you know when you began fighting for equal pay that it would gain as much attention as it did?
When I began fighting for Equal Pay, it was for myself and then it became a battle for everyone!! I had no idea the fight would gain so much attention, but everyone “got it”— Unequal Pay breaks the Law! Equal Pay is a Family affair— Unequal Pay will affect a person’s retirements also.
What has been your favorite area of service, and what is your favorite thing about that position?
My favorite area of service are the groups that had never thought about how Equal Pay affects your life while working and retirements! Young college groups also think we have Equal Pay and it will not be a problem when they start work. They know have Equal Pay Law, but do not understand it was enforced.
Have you read any books that have shaped your perspective on life?
Books on Elenor Roosevelt helped me understand the difference one person could make. First Lady E.R. made much progress and was ahead of her time.

What advice would you give to young women who lack the courage to stand up for themselves?

Young women need to make sure they get the Pay their work, experience, etc. because what they are short changed will affect their lives forever!! When it is lost—no way to ever get it corrected.

How do you spend your free time?

I try to stay very involved with my grandchildren and I love to visit them in Birmingham. My children are basically what drove me to success. I tried to make as much money as I could to give them the life they deserved, and put them on a pathway to their own success.

I also enjoy giving back to my community, and the state, and sponsor the Lilly Ledbetter Scholarship at Jacksonville State University.

For her service to women across the nation, the state of Alabama, and her community; for her relentless fight against prejudice based on gender in the workplace, and for being a true southern “steel magnolia,” Lilly Ledbetter is undeniably and Alabama woman of influence.