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University of Central Missouri
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Ledbetter Raises Awareness of Equal Pay Issue During Speech at UCM

Contact: Mike Greife
WARRENSBURG, MO (April 4, 2013) – For Lilly Ledbetter, a management job at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s Alabama manufacturing facility in 1979 meant a chance to earn a better living to help support her family. Upon her retirement 19 years later, she learned that men doing the same job had been paid substantially higher salaries than she had been paid. She chose to fight for what she felt was right, and her fight took her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lilly Ledbetter
Lilly Ledbetter

Ledbetter was the keynote speaker for the University of Central Missouri’s Politics and Social Justice Week Wednesday evening in UCM’s Nahm Auditorium. She explained how she went to work for Goodyear as a manager, receiving a top management award based upon her work record. However, as she was preparing to retire, she learned she had been paid as much as 40 percent less than her male counterparts. She also quickly realized that the inequity would affect her retirement benefits.

“I learned then that it’s not what happens to us that matters,” she said, “it’s how we react to it.” She filed suit against Goodyear, winning a $3.8 million jury award that immediately was reduced to $300,000 due to a cap on such awards that was mandated by law. The verdict was appealed, and the case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.

In May 2007, the majority of the court ruled she was not entitled to a settlement due to an interpretation of the existing law. It was a dissenting opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that set the tone for future federal legislation that rectified the inequity.

“When the ball bounced to Congress, I went with it,” Ledbetter said. Long an advocate for equal pay for equal work, she now had become an activist with the ability to draw the attention of those with the power to change the status quo.

“The legislation was sponsored by members of both parties,” she said. “It wasn’t about what party you belonged to, it was about what is fundamentally right.” Ledbetter travelled to Washington D.C. from her home in Alabama to lobby Congress, telling her story to those who would listen. She eventually was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 and later was invited to the inauguration of President Obama.

The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009. The law corrected the inequity that had cost Ledbetter her original court settlement by clarifying the amount of time a litigant has to file suit over discrepancy in fair pay. As Obama signed the legislation, Ledbetter was standing at his side. It was a moment she can describe in detail.

“That day, as I walked down that red carpet into the East Room of the White House to witness the signing of that bill, was a triumph, but it also was bittersweet,” she said. She cited data that shows that while the gap between the amount of money paid to men and women for equal work is closing, it still exists. She also noted that her husband had died only a few weeks before the inauguration.

“He was my strongest supporter throughout the entire thing,” she said. “He encouraged and continued to remind me believe that I could make a difference.”

Ledbetter travels 10 months out of the year from her home in Jacksonville, Ala., telling her story and raising awareness of the issue, and she has been interviewed a number of times on network television. Her first request for a personal appearing after the signing of the legislation took her to Rome, Italy, making her aware that it is a topic of international concern.

“To be part of history in a great responsibility,” she said. “I was asked once by a reporter, ‘Why do you not understand defeat?’ ” I told her it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about what’s right is right, and that’s what you have to stand for.”