Lilly Ledbetter And The Fight For Gender Equality

In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter began working at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. As one of the first women working there, Ledbetter rose to management but received pay unequal to her male counterparts, and even some of those who ranked below her. The first law President Obama signed on taking office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter talks about the law, named in her honor, and the ongoing struggle for equality.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Now it's time for our wisdom watch. It's the part of the program where we try to learn from those who've come before us, people who aren't just smart, but wise.

Today, a leader in the fight for women to get paid the same as men for doing the same work. Her name is Lily Ledbetter, and when Barack Obama signed his first piece of legislation as president last week, the bill he signed was named for her.

(Soundbite of President Barack Obama at the signing of the Lily Ledbetter bill)

President BARACK OBAMA: This is only the beginning. I know that if we stay focused as Lily did and keep standing for what's right, as Lily did, we will close that pay gap, and we will make sure that our daughters have the same rights, the same chances, and the same freedoms to pursue their dreams as our sons. So, thank you, Lily Ledbetter.

MARTIN: Lily Ledbetter is here with me in the studio now. Lily Ledbetter, thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. LILY LEDBETTER: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I'm sure you've told your story so many times you're sick of it.

Ms. LEDBETTER: No. No, absolutely not. The reason, Michel, is because this is not only Lily Ledbetter's story. It belongs to a lot of people across this country. And it's hurt a lot of households in this nation. In the beginning, I thought it was only a Southern problem. It's not. Really, basically, it's an epidemic across this United States that we live in.

MARTIN: Let me just give the bare outlines for folks who aren't familiar with your story. You worked at Goodyear, the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Alabama. You were a supervisor there, and you realized after a very long time that for, really for 20 years, you had been receiving less pay than men doing the same job. How did you figure that out?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Someone slipped me an anonymous note showing my name with three males, that we four were doing the exact same job and the base pay, and mine was drastically different than theirs. And I really, when I saw that, it took my breath away. I felt humiliated. I felt degraded. I had to sort of get my composure back to go ahead to perform my job and then, the first day off, I went to Birmingham, Alabama and filed a charge with the EEOC.

MARTIN: Did you - how did you know that that's what you needed to do?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Well, I had been in supervisory and been a former manager with two other companies. I knew the basic law and how people were supposed to be treated, and I was very excited back in 1964 when Jack Kennedy signed the Title VII, and actually, equal pay had passed in 1963. So, these were benefits that I felt like would cover me in my work history.

MARTIN: How did you come to work at Goodyear to begin with?

Ms. LEDBETTER: They built a tire plant, the radial tire plant, they already had the big tire plant, it was built in 1929, but they built the radial plant in 1976. And I had been driving radial tires for several years and knew that radial tires was the way of the future, and I liked production-type work. And I liked their philosophy that they were going to use in their radial plant, and I started to seek a job.

MARTIN: And as I understand it, you rose to become the only female supervisor in your area. Is that right?

Ms. LEDBETTER: I was the only one right where I was working, and they had very few through the years that I worked there.

MARTIN: What did it take to become a supervisor?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Well, I hired in as a supervisor and was on a six-month training program whereby I had to learn everything about Goodyear, their history, all the corporate people. And then I had to go on the floor and work, physically work the jobs, every job in the radial plant, before I was given a temporary slot as a supervisor on third shift to supervise a group of people producing components which tires are built out of.

MARTIN: Did you have any reason to believe you were being paid less than the men?

Ms. LEDBETTER: No. Because I felt like at Goodyear, we had a lot of government contracts. And I felt like that that was an old, reputable company, that they would be adhering to all federal guidelines in order to keep those government contracts.

MARTIN: When you first filed your suit, what was the reaction from Goodyear? Did they deny it? What did they do?

Ms. LEDBETTER: That's basically it. They denied it all the way through and even into trial and even afterwards, and I worked another 11 months after I filed my charge, and it was very difficult.

MARTIN: Did you ever figure out or come to wonder who tipped you off?

Ms. LEDBETTER: No. Because I had had a couple of mentors along the way who had helped me in my Goodyear work, but neither one of them was there at that facility any - you know, after that time. So, I have no idea. But from time to time, I would receive anonymous notes. Sometimes, they'd be left on my windshield. They'd say things that, you know, you might need to know this. So, people were, sort of, had my back, so to speak, and I never knew who these people were.

MARTIN: But it wasn't all - there were people who, you know, left other notes for you, as I understand it, that some people were - had your back and other people didn't. As I understand it, there were some difficulties there. There was a situation where a coworker was not respecting your authority. Do I have that right?

Ms. LEDBETTER: That's true. That's true, very difficult. And that made it very hard.

MARTIN: Well, just to be really blunt about it, you were being sexually harassed...

Ms. LEDBETTER: Basically.

MARTIN: By a co-worker who was basically trying to shake you down for sexual favors in exchange for a positive evaluation.

Ms. LEDBETTER: That's right.

MARTIN: That must have been very difficult.

Ms. LEDBETTER: It was. It really was, and never in my intentions did I want to be a troublemaker. I wanted to be a team player and to be respected for my capabilities and my performance only, nothing else.

MARTIN: So, you retired, what, about 11 months after you found out...

Ms. LEDBETTER: True.

MARTIN: About this pay gap. And then what happened was that the - I guess the whole process was such that you filed the first suit in November of 1999. It was about a year later. Why did it take so long?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Well, actually, I filed my EEOC charge in 1998. And then in 1999, we filed, again. I had an attorney then because EEOC had said I had a very good case and that maybe I'd get a - should get an attorney and go forward, and that's what I did. And we got to trial in January of 2003. That's when the verdict came back, 3.8 million in my favor. Of course, that was reduced immediately to a $300,000 cap and $60,000 back pay.

And that's important for your listeners to know. Back pay, you're only entitled to two years. That's all you can get. No more, no less, that's it. And there's a cap based on the size of the corporation you worked for. In my case, being one of the largest, it was 300,000. And that's not much money to have lost what I had lost for 19 years previous because that also affected my retirement, my contributory retirement, my 401(k). And today, it also affects my social security earnings.

MARTIN: So, this pay gap thing is no small matter. Even if it was a small gap, the fact of the matter is, compared to a man in the same job, it's a compound effect all down the line for...

Ms. LEDBETTER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But just to sort of tie a bow on it for people who aren't familiar with the whole story, what happened was that you prevailed in your lawsuit, but it was tossed out by the Supreme Court. The court rejected the case because they said it was filed too late, because you didn't file immediately after the discrimination took effect, even though you didn't know about it. So, how did that feel? Do you remember when the court threw out your case after all that you had been through to that point?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Well, I think the best thing was what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did when she read her dissent. And I wasn't in the courtroom to hear that. But I have read it, and I have heard her quoted on it, and she was exactly right, and she challenged Congress to change it.

Because basically, what those five justices did in that ruling, they changed the law. They didn't follow the law, they changed it. They interpreted it their way, and it basically changed it for people. So now, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Bill puts it back to where it was prior to the ruling in my case.

MARTIN: Did you ever get any recovery from the lawsuit?

Ms. LEDBETTER: No.

MARTIN: Even though the initial jury ruled in your favor and wanted you to have almost $4 million, which was the amount that they felt you were owed after having been discriminated against all those many years, they found that you had been discriminated against, you still didn't get a dime?

Ms. LEDBETTER: No, no.

MARTIN: The new law says that defendants can file cases six months after they receive their last check. Do I have that right?

Ms. LEDBETTER: That's correct. That's correct.

MARTIN: Well, how does this help people?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Well, it gives them still an opportunity to stand up for themselves when they learn that they are being discriminated against. It not only hurts families in their pocketbook and their households and their lifestyles and their children's education, it also affects them in the way they feel about themselves, too. And in my case, when I saw that, I thought about just moving on, just let it go. I couldn't because it was not right. That was not right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Lilly Ledbetter. She is the namesake of the new Fair Pay Act. That's the first piece of legislation that President Obama signed. The Goodyear plant is a huge plant, of course.

Ms. LEDBETTER: Right.

MARTIN: And as you know, it's on three shifts and so forth. But Gadsden itself is not that big of a place. So you had to have been running into people, you know, at the grocery store and at the mall, who had worked with you at the plant, or perhaps who knew about the suit. What was that like?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Basically, everybody in the factory treated me with respect, the fellows and girls who worked for me. They - most of them referred to me as Miss Lilly. They treated me with respect. And as I often told my groups, I said, you don't have to like me, but I would like for you to respect me.

MARTIN: Did you ever have a sense that there was any discomfort with you because you had filed the suit? Because people knew that you were fighting the company?

Ms. LEDBETTER: Not with the union people, but I did with managers, other managers and salaried people. They, sort of, after you file a suit, you're known as the troublemaker or the problem. And people think that it's not healthy for their career if they are seen speaking to you or talking to you. It was just part of the process that I had to deal with and go forward.

MARTIN: How did you sustain yourself through all this? How did you keep at it? How did you do that?

Ms. LEDBETTER: My faith. I have a lot of faith. And I have always believed that what's right is right and it will come out in the end. And I am so grateful. I am so grateful that Congress saw fit to pass this bill, and the president of the United States signed it because this means so much to so many people.

MARTIN: Do I have it right that you had been a registered Republican before all this?

Ms. LEDBETTER: No, no, I had always been a Democrat. I had just been a silent Democrat before, never outspoken.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I'm curious is that Gadsden, and Anniston nearby, was the scene of a number of civil rights battles. And I just wonder if you saw your fight in relation to those earlier fights?

Ms. LEDBETTER: That's true, I do because - and I heard, in fact, I heard Arthur Davis, who's the representative from Birmingham, Alabama - he compared me to Rosa Parks, and I felt so honored to be in the same class with Rosa Parks because she stood up for what she believed in, and so did I.

MARTIN: For some people, when they see a situation like this, when something like this happens to them, it's like a light bulb goes off, they think this couldn't possibly be happening to me. And then they realize that it is.

When you were growing up, did you think life was fair? And I'm wondering if - when you found out that you were being paid so much less than the men were for doing the same job, did that change, kind of, the way you looked at the world?

Ms. LEDBETTER: No, it did not change. I think that was my strong point going into this, is to have a good foundation I had parents who were very ethical in their work habits and their beliefs, and they instilled that in me. And to tell you the truth I was an only child, but in the summer, my mom didn't work, and she'd get me up early to do yard work and gardening work.

So, you know, it was still - I was taught to work and to carry my part and to do my part, and maybe do more than my part. And I was also brought up with the idea that I lived in a country that I could be or do anything that I set my mind to.

MARTIN: What was it like being the center of attention at the bill signing ceremony a couple of days ago, being the center of attention? Even with the president and first lady there, you were the star of that show. What was that like?

Ms. LEDBETTER: It was just awesome. They are such wonderful, down to earth, warm people, and they are just - I had the opportunity to campaign with them, and to ride the train into Washington for the inauguration with them, and they are wonderful people.

MARTIN: And forgive me for mentioning this, it's been, you know, a great celebration. You had the opportunity to see yourself vindicated - your fight vindicated, this law has been named for you, but forgive me, but I understand that your husband died recently, I'm very sorry to say, and my condolences to you, and I understand you're struggling a bit financially that you never made any financial recovery after the suit. How are you getting along, if you don't mind my asking?

Ms. LEDBETTER: It's a struggle, and they really don't know exactly how it will come out until all the retirement - he had a couple of retirements that I get a small percentage of, but it is going to be a struggle because when I lost my husband, that cut a little bit more than 50 percent of my income and we didn't live, you know, extravagant life, we live just ordinary ranch type home, and I may have to downsize considerably. And it's not a good time to be selling a home and trying to reestablish either. So, I'll just have to see how I do, and I might be back at work.

MARTIN: Where are you going to work?

Ms. LEDBETTER: I don't know. I don't know who will hire me after, you know, putting on a fight like this.

MARTIN: I'm sure somebody will. Somebody will have something for you.

Ms. LEDBETTER: Maybe so.

MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share with people who might be listening to us, who might be facing some of the things that you confronted, wondering what to do. What's your wisdom for us?

Ms. LEDBETTER: I would like to tell the young women who are out there working to be aware of what's happening to them in their job, and to keep their goals set high and to strive to achieve them. And step up, don't step back, to get what they're entitled to because we do live in a great country.

MARTIN: Lilly Ledbetter, she is the namesake of the new fair pay act, that's the first piece of legislation that President Obama signed. She was kind enough to join me here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Lilly Ledbetter, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LEDBETTER: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Remember at Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. And we'd like you to tell us more. Do you think you would have been able to do what Lilly Ledbetter did? Fight a lawsuit for a decade? And how do you think the ongoing pay gap between and women can be addressed?

Or you can share your thoughts on whether America is already a post-racial society or not. To tell us more and to compare notes with other listeners, please go to our Web site, the Tell Me More page at npr.org.

You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522, and please remember to tell us your name and where you are from.

And a programming note, tomorrow we host our first ever Tell Me More Valentine love slam where poets will tell of loves lost and won. This Friday in our Faith Matters segment, we'll look at how some churches work to keep the spark in marriages, ministries that focus on fostering not only love of god, but love of your spouse, too.

And to close the program today we're going to play a little bit of one of our favorite love songs, Sam Cooke's number one hit "You Send Me," from back in 1957.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "You Send Me")

Mr. SAM COOKE: (Singing) But woo, it's lasted so long Now I find myself wanting To marry you and take you home Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh

You, you, you, you send me I know you send me I know you send me Honest you do.

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