Many Americans are forced to take pay cuts these days in order to get a steady paycheck. If Lilly Ledbetter gets her way, no woman or minority will make less than deserved and certainly not less than someone else doing the same job.
If her name rings a bell but you're not sure why, in 2009, President Obama signed a law called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
In 2011, she earned an entrance into the National Women's Hall of Fame for her relentless work in the pursuit of equal pay.
How she got there
During two decades of work at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, Ledbetter received anonymous tips that men in the company earned higher pay for doing the same job. She was told if she discussed her pay, she'd get fired.
"I was devastated, humiliated to the core of my being. I knew [the tips] were correct because my pay was an odd amount and it was correct," Ledbetter told AOL Jobs.
Immediately, she took her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the time, the law in place said that she had to file a complaint after getting her first paycheck. But she could not have known her pay was unfair at that time. She believes because she complained, she was reassigned to a job where she had to move heavy tires on her overnight shift.
Over nine years of lawsuits and appeals, her case made it to the Supreme Court. Lower court verdicts awarded her $3.3 million, later reduced to $300,000. While the high court ruled against her, the current law changed the Civil Rights Act so workers have six months to sue after a potential discriminatory paycheck. The law named for her has a provision where people can now talk about their pay without fear of retaliation.
Not equal rights, but civil rights
Ledbetter does not fancy herself a feminist. Rather, she looks at the bigger picture. Her lost earnings from unpaid overtime affected her resulting Social Security, which is based on her recorded earnings. Now, at 73, she feels it.
"What breaks my heart today, and why I travel to speak to any group that will invite me, is because they don't realize what this is doing to our families. I never collected a dime, but in that case it cost me dearly. I had a family, a daughter, a son, a husband. It cost my children a better education than they probably would have gotten."
One woman's impact
Ledbetter may be retired from Goodyear, but she's hardly eating bonbons on the couch or even pursuing hobbies. Her husband died in 2008, and the house the self-proclaimed "pack rats" shared for 50 years needs a good cleaning. No time. She keeps an exhausting speaking schedule, addressing college students about to enter the work force.
"It gives me energy," she says. "Even if I didn't feel good going into a speech, I feel great coming out. I'm like the Energizer Bunny. I have been so blessed."
Random House is releasing her story in 2012, and there are murmurs of a movie. And Meryl Streep, if you're reading this: Ledbetter hopes you might consider playing her in a film.
And you can bet she'll never put another Goodyear tire on her car!
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