$3 million short, but rich in life
For 20 years, Lilly Ledbetter was just another manager at the Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., who never knew that the 15 men working beside her earned 40 percent more. She learned the ugly truth in 1998, when she found an anonymous note in her mailbox, telling her she had been shafted. For years.
Seattle Times staff columnist
She's an icon. A part of history. The name on the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama.
But for 20 years, Lilly Ledbetter was just another manager at the Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., who never knew that the 15 men working beside her earned 40 percent more.
Ledbetter only learned the ugly truth in 1998, when she found an anonymous note in her mailbox, telling her she had been shafted. For years.
Ledbetter sued Goodyear for unfair labor and wage practices and won $3 million in damages. Goodyear appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision, saying Ledbetter hadn't brought the suit within six months of when the discrimination started.
But how could she have known? Workplace peer confidentiality prevented it.
In her solo dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued the discrimination was renewed each payday.
That logic fueled the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which states that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit resets with each new discriminatory paycheck.
"It was not my ambition to make history," Ledbetter told me. "I just wanted what I was legally entitled to, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court.
"But I had to do it," she said. "I had to do what was right."
Ledbetter, 71, will tell her story Thursday at a luncheon sponsored by the Women's Center at the University of Washington. The event will be held at 11:30 a.m. at the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle. (For tickets, call 800-838-3006).
Ledbetter is pushing not only paycheck fairness but for employers to give more information about where people's salaries rank with those of their peers.
"It's quite simple," she said. "The Ledbetter Act should encourage employers to assess their process and procedures and make sure they are following the letter of the law."
Good luck with that, I said. Talking about what we make is taboo in American society. The recession has softened that somewhat; we are united in our struggle, but still won't let on how much.
Ledbetter argues that paycheck equity isn't a political or social issue but an economic one that affects not just women but families. Fair pay for all means children have better education, housing, food. Better futures.
Ledbetter's isn't going to get any better, financially. Her lesser salary at Goodyear affected her retirement pay, her 401(k), her Social Security, "All of it," she said.
"I am shortchanged every month," she said.
"I will be a second-class citizen all my life."
Indeed, an accountant friend who reviewed her old pay stubs estimates she'll be shorted more than $3 million over her lifetime.
Her experiences, though, have eased the sting. She spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and danced with Obama at the Inaugural Ball.
And while she has become used to public speaking, "when I am introduced," she said, "I always look around to see who they are talking about."
Her story brings women to tears. Medical doctors, college professors, even the television anchors who interview her. ("I am telling their story," she said.)
Men confess they had no idea.
One final inequity: Ledbetter drives a GMC Arcadia that came with — you guessed it — Goodyear tires.
"As soon as I get some money," she said, "I am going to put new tires on it."
Who could blame her?
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or email@example.com.
Obama's a "smooth" dancer.
About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-2334
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.