Q&A With Lilly Ledbetter

Lilly Ledbetter is living history

Goodyear Tire Company in Alabama

Don’t you just love when you meet a feisty old granny? The Frisky: Can you tell us about Goodyear vs. Ledbetter that made you famous?

I was working at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama. In my case, I was a first-line manager, supervisor, and I was making 40 percent less than my male counterparts. I found that I was being paid less than my male peers for doing the same job so I filed a charge with the EEOC. There were two women who testified on my behalf and none of us were being paid fair. I carried my case all the way to court. The trial ended in a $3.8 million award and my case ended up in the Supreme Court. But the Justices — five of ‘em voted, 5-to-4, against me. They didn’t say I wasnt’ discriminated against, they just said I waited too long. Which meant I should have filed my charge back in the early ’80s when I didn’t know [my pay when unequal] and had no way to prove it. If you don’t know it, you can’t file a charge and when I found out I went immediately and filed my charge. Actually, those Justices changed the law [from allowing victims to file after they learn about the discrimination to only allowing victims to file after the discrimination happened] when they did that. Justice Ginsberg asked Congress to take it up and change it back. Eighteen months later, we got the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and it put the law back to where it was prior to my case.

So what does the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act say?

[You can charge gender discrimination] 180 days from the time you find out. Basically, it is still based on paycheck accrual. If you are getting a check and you find out you are getting discriminated against, you have got 180 days from that time to file that charge.

Did being paid less than your male colleagues affect your benefits, too?

What was so devastating was that my retirement — my contributory retirement, my 401K, and my Social Security — [were lower]. I will be a second-class citizen in my pay for the rest of my life and there’s nothing I can doing about it because the Supreme Court took it away from me. I’m just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an national epidemic.

My husband died in ’08. That left me being a widow. My income dropped more than 50 percent. So many families this is happening to. The poverty level, in the senior population is women. So many families are having to move their [grand]mothers into homes with them and having to raise teenagers and they’ve got their mother there, which is a hardship. Not that they don’t care about their mothers — its just a hardship! This is not the way the family structure is supposed to be. We’re better than that in this country. I hear so many stories of women working two and three jobs and they still can’t pay all their bills because they’re not being paid what they legally earned and are entitled to.

Now you’re an activist for equal pay.

I am. I am so dedicated to this.