Lilly Ledbetter, a gender-equality advocate and namesake of the 2009 Equal Pay Act, made remarks to a crowd of more than 200 people at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday evening.
“If I say one thing tonight that will change an individual’s life, I will have done my job,” Ledbetter said at the beginning of her speech.
In 1979, Ledbetter said she faced discrimination at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Alabama, where she worked as a supervisor. In 1998, after 19 years of alleged sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company, she received an anonymous note that showed the salaries of three of her male co-workers who held the same position as her. The three males monthly salaries were nearly $6,000, while hers was $3,727.
Ledbetter originally won a sex discrimination case against Goodyear, but the ruling was overturned on an appeal.
“I was devastated, humiliated and could not let it go,” Ledbetter said.
Over the next eight years, Ledbetter’s case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of Goodyear, saying that she should have filed a case within 180 days of her first unequal paycheck, even though Ledbetter was unaware of the discrepancy for nearly 20 years.
“I could not let a major corporation (take advantage of) me and my family,” she said.
In 2009, Ledbetter made national news again. This time her name became the symbol of President Barack Obama’s first piece of legislation signed as president: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
On average, women make 77 cents to every dollar men earn, and the discrepancy is even worse for women of color. Under the act, more time is allowed for lawsuits to be filed for discriminatory wage practices.
Since then, Ledbetter has toured the nation speaking about gender equality.
“(Inequality) is going on every day — as I speak tonight — in this country, and that’s why I still do this today,” Ledbetter said. “This country is better than this, and we need to correct these problems. We have to get some laws to protect the people.”
LSA senior Brianna Henderson said she attended the lecture because she had heard many different perspectives on the Equal Pay Act and wanted to hear from Ledbetter herself.
Ledbetter was invited to speak by the Department of Women’s Studies and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender for their annual Vivian R. Shaw lecture, part of a series highlighting issues affecting women or gender. An open question-and-answer section preceded her speech. LSA senior Elizabeth Schapiro voiced her concerns as a woman soon entering the workforce.
“I’m shocked by the timeframe of your case,” she said. “I thought we’d be talking about the 50s and 60s. As a senior entering the workforce next year, I’m now concerned about my salary.”
A signing of Ledbetter’s book “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond” followed.
“This has been a journey, and it has been very rewarding,” Ledbetter said. “And no, I do not buy Goodyear tires.”
— Daily Staff Reporter Jennifer Calfas contributed to this report.