Lilly Ledbetter's Southern drawl could be soothing, but her message won't allow that.
The 74-year-old is most famously known for suing Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 1998, after nearly 20 years of employment, for not being compensated fairly. In fact, her pay was 15 to 40 percent lower than that of her fellow male production supervisors with equal or less seniority. The lawsuit traveled to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was finally denied in 2007 because she had not filed her complaint within the 180 days required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In her dissenting argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that for a rule change, "the ball is in Congress' court." It took a few rounds through the Legislature, but in 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a bill that resets the timeline requirements for filing a compensation-related discrimination lawsuit.
Still, Ledbetter's work isn't done. Though her home is in Jacksonville, Ala., she often can be found in Washington, D.C., visiting House or Senate chambers to follow up on the progress of Paycheck Fairness bills — bills that could allow both for protections for women who want to discuss salary disparities with their employers, and for the federal government to collect salary information to monitor possible pay discrimination.
According to the National Women's Law Center's analysis of U.S. Census data, white, non-Hispanic women working full-time, year-round, are still paid only 77 cents to every dollar that men are paid, a figure that hasn't changed in 10 years. The gap gets even larger when considering gender and race.
We caught up with Ledbetter over the phone in late March, between her many talks across the country for Women's History Month. It's a busy time of year: The second Tuesday in April marks Equal Pay Day, and as part of her travels this month, she'll be passing through Colorado Springs on the 8th for a lecture at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Indy: Talk about that moment when you found out how drastic the difference was in pay between you and your male co-workers.
LL: Immediately I was devastated. I felt humiliated, embarrassed. I mean, it was like falling down, or if you've ever had those dreams of runnin' down the street with no clothes on. ...
I did not know how many people knew these facts, or where the information came from ... but immediately my mind starting calculating just overtime pay, how much money I had lost. ... This is just terrible to think about, how much money my family had done without, when I had worked for it, had legally earned it under the law. ...
I didn't expect to be paid exactly to the penny what everybody else was paid because that's why they had the system they did, but I should have been closer and in the ballpark. And as I tell people today, I had not even gotten through the gate, to tell you the truth.
Indy: It's still with you. I can hear it in your voice.
LL: It'll always be with me. Every month, when my Social Security check and my retirement checks go in the bank, my mind is saying I know they're 40 percent less, and actually [the disparity is] much greater than that because just the difference in my pay was 40 percent. It should be more than that based on my overtime, because the overtime pay kicked up my income, and that would've made my 401(k) — which was 10 percent, matched by 6 percent — stock greater. My contributory pension was a percentage, matched by percentage, that would've been greater.
My Social Security check is based on what I earned. My retirement check is based on what I earned. So I'm shorted for the rest of my life, and I'm treated like a second-class citizen. And there's nothin' I can do about it.
Indy: You received an anonymous note. I would guess, knowing my own history with how pay is kept confidential within companies, that most women today still have no idea how their salaries compare. How do you go about effecting change when that's the situation?
LL: Well, what I'm telling my audiences today, Paycheck Fairness has passed the House twice. I've been in the balcony in the Senate chambers when it was voted on the last two times in the Senate, and it's come three votes, and then two votes short. Last time it was voted on, every Democrat in that chamber voted for it. Not one Republican.
And what you and I are talking about right now, it has nothin' to do with either party. That should not be a Democratic problem. That shouldn't be a Republican [problem]. That should belong to both because equal pay, and being treated equitably, and fairly, is a fundamental, American right. It's civil rights. ...
What I am so proud of with the Ledbetter bill — it was sponsored and co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats. ... If we could've just gotten two Republicans to have come across and voted for Paycheck Fairness, then the people that's working today could ask their co-workers or discuss with people at work how they're paid.
Granted, people don't share their pay because that's really a personal item, sometimes people feel like if they're not earning enough it's embarrassing or if they think they're earning a lot it will cause a problem to talk about it, but you could get a better idea without retaliation. And if there was retaliation, you've got a legal recourse to fall back on with Paycheck Fairness. That bill has been worked on for 15 years, and to get it passed we have to put the pressure on our senators in Washington, the people that we vote for and send up there.
Indy: You talk a lot about why this is a man's issue as much as it is a woman's issue. Can you explain that?
LL: It's a family issue. ... Say a single mom is not paid fairly. She may have a dad. She may have a brother. This affects everybody. It also affects that person, whoever it is, that manages their own grocery store down the street. It affects the rental people, if she's renting. It affects everything because when people, when women and minorities are not compensated fairly and equitably, it affects everybody. And especially their family. ...
Last year I had a big speaking conference that I did, and the man said, "I wanted this person to kick off this conference, simply because I have two daughters." And he announced my name and that's all he said. And it was simply because he understands that those two daughters who have gone to college, have college degrees, they need to be paid the same as any male doing the job that they have.
Indy: What would you tell the average American sitting next to you on the airplane, one thing she could do today to make a difference?
LL: Be active and know what your politicians are passing in your community, your state, your nation. Be involved.
Indy: Just one last thing. What's it like having your name on a bill?
LL: Very humbling. It puts me in the history books. ... It's a responsibility that I have to live up to.