President Obama and Lilly Ledbetter (Reuters/Larry Downing)
Lilly Ledbetter is a name that has become a convenient euphemism. It means "women's rights." It means "fair pay." It means "victory." When women want to know what the president has done for them, that's the answer they get.
President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on Jan. 29, 2009. It was the first bill he signed as president. And since then, we have been reminded, by the president, his wife, and members of his administration, again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again, that he did.
On May 26, 2010, for example, at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer, the president said:
We passed the Lilly Ledbetter law that put forward the basic principle that an equal’s day -- that a day’s work should get an equal day’s pay regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman who is doing the work.
And so we have been conditioned to understand that when the president or someone who represents him says "Lilly Ledbetter," it's a reminder that Obama fights for women's rights and that deference and gratitude are owed.
The reality, however, is that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act doesn't do much in the way of equal pay for equal work. A recent American Bar Association survey of cases under the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act found 66 cases, most of which determined that the Act did not apply. In Rodriguez-Torres v. Government Development Bank, for example, the court held:
[The Act] does not create substantive rights, but instead clarifies the point of commencement of the statute of limitations in instances of wage discrimination.
And that's it. That's really all the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act does. It does not create any new "substantive" rights; it merely addresses the timing of when a lawsuit can be filed. Has it made a difference in the dozen or so cases that would otherwise have been barred from proceeding? Certainly. But the right to proceed with a lawsuit for discrimination is not the same as ending discrimination. It does not guarantee equal pay. It does not protect against discriminatory practices that consistently promote men over women. It merely grants victims of discriminatory pay practices more time to sue.
To be sure, the Ledbetter Act would not be law today if a Republican occupied the White House. We know this for a fact, of course, because when the Democrats in Congress first passed the bill in 2007, President Bush vetoed it. When Obama became president, Congress passed the bill again, and he signed it into law.
But that's it. He did not have to fight and compromise and expend political capital. No risks were involved. Democrats in Congress had already done the hard work of gathering enough votes to pass the legislation, before the president took office. Even a few (a very few) Republicans voted for the bill, both in 2007 and in 2009.
But to suggest that this single act in any way ended unfair pay practices, or that its impact has been widespread enough to reduce the still pervasive discriminatory practices throughout the country, is simply wrong. And it is unfortunate that it is so often, and so inaccurately, cited as evidence that fair pay is a "key priority" of the president. Such overuse and misuse of its meaning ultimately denigrates it, and the woman for whom the law is named.
Make no mistake: Lilly Ledbetter, the woman, deserves credit for what she did, not what we are supposed to pretend the bill named for her accomplishes. Ms. Ledbetter had the courage to stand up to her employer, going all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for her right to sue for equal pay. Ms. Ledbetter showed great courage; the president, on the other hand, merely signed a bill that addresses the statute of limitations.
And yet, whenever the president or his administration is questioned about his commitment to women's equality, the answer is always the same. Of course he is committed; fair pay is a "key priority." After all, Lilly Ledbetter.
Yet that bill, the first bill he signed as president, is the only significant evidence of the president's commitment to women's equality. Which is why it is the only example his administration ever cites.
And it is not enough.
Because when there are risks involved, when the president must choose between standing up for women and achieving other goals, his commitment to women disappears. And to date, he has been unwilling to expend any political capital to defend, protect, or expand women's rights.
In the health care reform negotiations, for example, the president not only sacrificed women's ability to use their health insurance to pay for a legal medical procedure; he also endorsed the heinous Hyde Amendment, which has, for decades, punished poor women by denying them access to this legal medical procedure.
This year, at Netroots Nation, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer even said that the president's decision to throw women under the bus, and to defend and expand the Hyde Amendment, was a "simple choice."
A simple choice.
Pfeiffer also refused to acknowledge that there is a war on women, a specific phrase used by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and many other women—and men—in Congress.
The president will not use such language. Instead, we are reminded, in the vaguest of terms, that the president cares. The president is concerned. The president has tried. And the evidence, according to the White House, that the president is concerned about the many fronts of this war, even if he will not call it a war, is, of course, Lilly Ledbetter.
Meanwhile, more than a thousand bills restricting women's health care, privacy, security, and yes, even equal pay, have been introduced throughout the country. Several have been introduced and passed in the House.
They have not passed in the Senate, and in a few instances, the president has threatened to veto those that make it to his desk. (None have.) But rather than address the attacks head on, rather than articulate to the country exactly why and how these bills and attacks would be disastrous for women, we are reminded instead of his devotion to women's equality because the first bill he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Act.
The president has said that women's rights are not merely a matter of politics to him. On May 19, 2011, addressing the Women's Leadership forum, the president said:
The cause of women aren’t just important to me as President -- they are personal. I saw my grandmother hit a glass ceiling at the bank where she worked for years. She could have been the best bank president they ever had, but she never got that chance. I saw how Michelle was made to balance work and family when she was a vice president at a hospital. As a father, I want to make sure that my daughters and all of our daughters have the chance to be anything that they want. That’s the America that we believe in. That’s the America we’re fighting for.
It's a compelling argument for why the president claims that women's equality is so important to him, not just politically, but personally. And yet, the president has said little, and done less, to promote an agenda of women's equality.
Despite his constant invocation of Lilly Ledbetter, despite his administration's insistence that equal pay is a "key priority," he said not a word in his State of the Union speech this year. Or the year before.
Such silence hardly suggests that equal pay, let alone women's equality in general, is a "key priority" for this president.
There are several proposed bills languishing in the House that would address some of the assaults and unfair conditions American women still endure today, from the Maternal Health Accountability Act to the Paycheck Fairness Act, and even a re-introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, all of which would have a far greater impact on American women than the Lilly Ledbetter Act's tweaking of the statute of limitations.
In fact, Tina Tchen, assistant to the President, Chief of Staff to the First Lady, and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, recently wrote on the White House blog:
As an Illinois State Senator, [Obama] was a sponsor of a joint resolution ratifying The Equal Rights Amendment, and as a United States Senator he was a cosponsor of the Women’s Equality Amendment. Under then-Senator Obama’s leadership, the 2008 Democratic Party Platform also reaffirmed support for the Equal Rights Amendment and laid out a strong stance to ensure women’s rights.
As president, however, Obama has done nothing to explain the importance of, at long last, passing this critical amendment, which is not merely a symbolic exercise, but a necessary step in protecting and expanding women's equality, particularly in a current political climate that is so hostile to women.
Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion for the court in the recent Wal-Mart case, has shown exactly why such an amendment is necessary. Earlier this year, he said that the Constitution provides no equal protection for women.
Is it any wonder, then, that this same Supreme Court Justice would rule that no evidence was sufficient to prove that Wal-Mart had discriminated against its female employees? While the entire court sided with him on procedural grounds, Justice Ginsburg rejected his rejection of the overwhelming statistical and anecdotal evidence in her dissent, which did suggest that Wal-Mart's policies systematically discriminated against women.
The White House, however, has been silent on this decision. When asked whether the president had any opinion of it, Press Secretary Jay Carney said no. But he was quick to remind us:
I can tell you this, that ending pay discrimination in the workplace is a key priority for the President. Signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was one of his first acts as President and he has continued to call for additional legislation to equalize pay in the workplace.
And the next day:
As I said yesterday, ending pay discrimination is a key priority for the President, and that is why signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was one of his first acts. It is also why he continues to call for new legislation. In particular, the President has called for Congress to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act, which, as you may remember, the House passed over two years ago but the Senate did not, coming only two votes short of cloture.
The Lilly Ledbetter Act may have given women more time to file lawsuits for discrimination, but if the Supreme Court can ultimately decide that no amount of evidence proves discriminatory practices, or that the Constitution does not even prohibit gender discrimination, the Lilly Ledbetter Act means little for the millions of women who still face such discrimination.
The president's personal observations of women's inequality, and his wish to see his daughters grow up in a world of equal opportunities, are good reasons for him to argue loudly and passionately that we as a nation must fight back against the assaults on women and we must pass legislation that further expands women's equality.
But let's not overlook the political benefits to the president. Certainly, speaking out against the war on women and showing just how much women's rights are a "key priority," and not just a talking point, would help him to recapture the Democratic women who voted for him in overwhelming numbers in 2008, but who sided with Republicans in 2010. Clearly, the now-stale Lilly Ledbetter mantra was not sufficient, in the last election, for women to believe that the Democratic Party is unquestionably the party that best represents women.
It is true that the president does not have control over the state legislatures that are attacking women on a daily basis. And he cannot force the Republican-controlled House to pass legislation that he says he wants to sign into law. But he can use the power of his office to explain to the country why such attacks are unacceptable and harmful. He can speak directly and aggressively against such attacks and for the passage of every proposed law that would greatly improve the lives of American women.
He can and he should, not only because, as he says, women's equality is a personal concern of his, not only because it would benefit him and the Democratic Party politically, but also because, and most importantly, it is the right thing to do.