Lilly Ledbetter, a 71-year-old grandmother, advocate, lobbyist and author stood in front of the microphone and told her story. ??”I was never seeking fame,” Ledbetter said. “I just wanted fairness and equality for myself and my family.”??
She delivered her address from a podium in Castleton State College’s student campus center. ?Her journey to Vermont earlier this month was the latest stop in what has been the long and ground-breaking trip Ledbetter has taken throughout her life. ??
In 1979, Ledbetter, an Alabama native, went to work as a supervisor for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala.??
“My supervisor didn’t believe women should be working in that company,” Ledbetter said. “He tried to accuse me of things, tried to get me to take the easy way out and walk away from it all.”??
Despite the negative comments, inappropriate sexual suggestions and accusations, Ledbetter said, she wouldn’t budge.
“I told my managers they were in the wrong and I asked to be respected as a worker,” she said. “All I was doing was just trying to make a living.”??
She weighed her options from time to time, evaluating the harassment she was encountering and the importance of self-respect.
“You get to a point where you stop and say, ‘enough is enough’,” Ledbetter said. ??
When she filed a complaint, she brought forth a diary of all the offensive things she had encountered on a day-to-day basis and a man ager who was responsible for most of her harassment was reassigned to a new department, but, even afterward, she continued to face discrimination. ??
When Ledbetter began working at Goodyear in 1979, she started off with the same base pay as her male counterparts. However, Goodyear soon switched their pay system to reflect on performance and enforced strict confidentiality rules that prohibited workers from discussing salaries. ??
“Some years I would get raises, and I thought they were pretty good,” she said, “but I didn’t know how they compared to other people’s raises.”??
It wasn’t until 1998, just before she retired, that, she said, hard evidence of pay discrimination began to surface. ??
“An anonymous note was left in my mailbox,” Ledbetter said.
The note compared her wages to three other male managers’ wages, showing that they were getting paid between 15 and 40 percent more than she was.
Shocked, hurt and upset, Ledbetter said, she made the decision just a few short days later to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, in 1999, she hired an attorney. ??
When the discovery process gave proof that Goodyear had known all along that Ledbetter was getting paid a lot less than the men doing the same work, her case was taken to federal court in 2003. ??”I thought about letting it go,” she said slowly, “but it was a basic matter of fairness and my dignity.”??
Goodyear had claimed that Ledbetter was a poor performer, and that explained the lower wages. ?
The false claims and Ledbetter’s “Top Performer” award, won in 1996, convinced the jury to rule that Goodyear had discriminated against her in violation of Title VII, the Civil Rights Act.
The jury awarded her back pay as well as $3.3 million. Her $3.3 million, however, was reduced to $300,000 because of Title VII’s statutory cap. ??
Goodyear appealed the verdict, and, on May 29, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter was not entitled to compensation because she filed her claim more than 180 days after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck. ??
Ledbetter had lost approximately $224,000 in salary over time, and she now lives paycheck to paycheck as her retirement wages are based on the discriminatory pay she received. ??
On Jan. 29, 2009, Lilly Ledbetter stood next to President Barack Obama as he signed the first piece of legislation as president. ??
The “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act,” ensures that workers discriminated on the basis of gender have a fair chance to sue their employers and amends the Civil Rights Act so that workers can sue up to 180 days after receiving a discriminatory paycheck. ??
“Stand up for yourselves,” she encouraged. “Once you know your rights, it’s that much harder for people to take them away from you.”??
“She was absolutely fabulous,” Castleton economics professor Judith Robinson said after the speech. “This is a very important story to tell, and it’s part of a whole larger picture that’s out there.”??
Castleton communications professor and women’s studies advocate Sanjukta Ghosh coordinated the event and was pleased with Ledbetter’s words. ??
“She’s not doing this for herself,” Ghosh said. “She’s doing this for future generations to come, so that what happened to her doesn’t happen to others and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.