Lilly Ledbetter has written a memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, in which she recounts her years at Goodyear Tire and her experience there with discrimination and sexual harassment, and her suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimately resulted in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay act. She describes the financial hardship she endured from not only being paid far less than the men she worked with, but also the costs incurred in pursuing her suit, and being forced out of her job before retirement.
Born in 1938 in Possum Trot AL, she grew up poor as an only child, recalling her clothes handmade from feed sacks whereas the other children had store bought garments. She left a position as an accountant with H&R Block to take the position at Goodyear Tire, wishing to be part of the team concept at the new radial tire plant. She was hired into management so she was not in the union. But she volunteered for some union work, thus gaining the respect of the men she supervised who were not accustomed to taking direction from a woman. They eventually called her 'Miss Lilly' a title she proudly carried through the rest of her career.
She had to carry a pocket knife in her early days on the job, as a defense against a hazing procedure which involed 'picking' of pubic hair. She was demoted for having refused the sexual advances of a foreman. She was injured on the job by a hydraulic gate, but continued to go to work. When she discovered how underpaid she was compared to her male co-workers, she realized that it affected not only lost income, for which her family suffered, but all the many hours and hours of overtime not paid for would affect her future retirement earnings.
Lilly Ledbetter was 41 years old when hired at Goodyear and planned to spend the rest of her working life there. After filing her complaint with the EEOC she was forced out of Goodyear at the age of 60, before qualifying for retirement. So, she had to live on and draw down and deplete her meager 401k and was in debt for two years. Under pressure (her mother was dying of cancer at the time and as an only child Ms. Ledbetter was the sole caretaker) and without a lawyer, she says made a bad decision and agreed to sign the 'early out' that Goodyear presented her.
The EEOC said her case, which was based on the Equal Pay Act and Age Discrimination, was the best such case they had ever seen. They got her a lawyer who worked pro bono on the case. It took 9 years and $35,000 and in the end she was awarded $360,000. The original award of $3.8 million was overturned on appeal because of the two-year cap on back pay. The ruling changed the law to result in the reduced award, says. Ms. Ledbetter, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged Congress to change the law back, which resulted in the historic Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Of her current situation she says she is 'just scraping by' financially. She addresses women's groups, where she explains to audiences the income reductions that befall women when they typically outlive their spouses by ten years. Her own income dropped by more than 50% when her husband died in 2008. Lower lifetime wages result in smaller retirement income. Though the cost of living goes up, her "retirements will not. I am struggling to get by" she says. Are you listening Catfood Commission? It is a heartbreaking irony that the woman who created history by effectuating the eponymous equal pay law, has to worry in retirement. If someone of Ms. Ledbetter's stature is struggling, what are the rest of America's retired women supposed to do? Yet Republicans are on a mission to gut these meager retirement funds even more, because 'most Social Security recipients are wealthy'. She does say she hopes the book sells.
Nevertheless, she says she has been so blessed in her life by the people she has met and the things that have occurred in her life, that have made her life so rich. And then we hear someone like Ann Romney say she doesn't consider herself wealthy. What a stark contrast. As Rick Santorum would say, it makes me want to throw up.
The above account was transcribed from a recent interview with Lilly Ledbetter which you can listen to here: