Lilly Ledbetter Speaks

Lilly Ledbetter photo

Lilly Ledbetter, an activist who brought her former employer to court after discovering she was not paid the same as her male co-workers, spoke to hundreds inside the Memorial Chapel Tuesday night, sharing her story and offering advice on how to gain equal pay for equal work.

“You need to watch Washington and how they’re voting,” she said. “Don’t let them get away with anything. It is important to put the pressure on people. It takes a lot of people to get things done, but know that your vote counts.”

Ledbetter, an Alabama resident, began working at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1979. She discovered 20 years later via an anonymous note that she was not making the same amount of money as her male colleagues, which not only impacted her regular pay, but also overtime and retirement contributions. No one discussed their salaries, she said, as it was forbidden by Goodyear.

“I only wanted to get the best job and pay I could,” she said. “I lived up to my end of the bargain, but my employer did not.”

Ledbetter went to the Equal Employment Commission in 1999, but her case didn’t make it to federal court until 2003. A jury awarded her $3.8 million, which was dropped down to $300,000, as that was the most she was entitled to by law. Her husband, who was sick from cancer, urged her to go to the Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 that although she did not know she was not being paid a fair wage, she had waited too long to file a complaint in court.

She didn’t win, but did receive nationwide attention. The media came calling, and “my life changed drastically,” she said. Ledbetter began meeting with members of Congress, and she spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. After months of working with politicians, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – which allows the time necessary to file a lawsuit to reset with each paycheck that is affected by a discriminatory action – became the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama during his first term.

“My husband lived to see him elected but not to see the bill become law,” she said. “I was so proud that it was sponsored and co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats. We need to get together that way again.”

Although strides have been made, Ledbetter was quick to share statistics that are grim.

“This is the first bill but it can’t be the last, since women still make 77 cents to the dollar that men make,” she said. “African-American women make 62 cents, and Hispanic women 54 cents. We haven’t gained anything in 50 years, and are way behind. We have to keep working; it’s not just a women’s issue, but a family issue.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Campus Diversity & Inclusion Department, the Women’s Center, the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, and the Redlands branch of the American Association of University Women.

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