Little did I know a few weeks ago, when Carole Joffe and I wrote "It's About Time Working Women Get Straight Answers from John McCain",
showing the connective tissue uniting economic and reproductive
justice--you know, like the phrase "barefoot and pregnant"-- and
challenging McCain to clarify his positions on basic questions such as:
Do you believe in equal pay for equal work?
...that I would soon have the opportunity to meet the woman whose name has become synonymous with equal pay, Lilly Ledbetter.
She's a true hero of the ongoing battle for paycheck equality
regardless of gender. I was invited to a press briefing sponsored by AAUW
(the American Association of University Women, in case there is anyone
in America who doesn't know the acronym of this large and powerful
organization which has championed women's educational and professional
advancement since 1881).
Lilly Ledbetter and yours truly at AAUW briefing on the status of equal pay legislation in Congress
This article on
AAUW's website explains the two equal pay bills and why they are
critically needed to ensure American women are treated fairly and
equitably when it comes to compensation:
[O]n May 29, 2007, the now infamous decision in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a contentious split
decision, the Court turned 40 years of legal precedent and EEOC
practice on its head, and in the process made it virtually impossible
for victims of pay discrimination to protect their rights under Title
VII. Under this new rule, employers cannot be held accountable for
their discrimination after 180 days.
The sheer wrongheadedness
of this decision moved Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to read her dissent,
aloud, from the bench, a very unusual event. It also caused a public
outcry, and newspapers across the country editorialized against the
Court’s action. The decision also galvanized Congress to right the
Court’s wrong. AAUW’s report, together with the Ledbetter
decision and the courage of Lilly Ledbetter, who continues to campaign
tirelessly in the hopes that other women won’t face the same inequities
she did, created a perfect storm that cemented the issue of equal pay
for equal work on the congressional agenda.
Ledbetter, you know the minute you look at her and hear her speak in
that soft Alabama twang, is the real deal. At 60, she was in the first
wave of women who sought what used to be known as "nontraditional
jobs", and she was the only woman in her plant holding the supervisory
job she had when someone anonymously dropped her a note with the
information that would change her life.
In her company, it was against policy for employees to discuss
salary with anyone else. This note informed her that she was being paid
far less than men holding the same position, with equal or less
seniority. She found out that it was true and decided it was an injustice that should be challenged. Though she asked other women in the
plant to join her, and they all confirmed the rampant discrimination,
none would buck the company for fear of losing their badly needed jobs. The men in management tried to push her out despite glowing performance revews. But Lilly pressed on. She eventually won her
case and was awarded over $3,000,000 by lower courts before having the
judgment reversed by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds.
Ledbetter and Linda Hallman,
Executive Director of AAUW, made sure the audience knew that the $0.77
women earn on average to men's $1.00 adds up to a whopping $300,000
lifetime loss. And at the rate the wage gap is closing, it'll be 2057
before we reach parity. Salary level in turn affects pension and other
retirement benefits. That plus women's greater longevity are largely
why women are twice as likely to die in poverty as men.
We already know, though much of the public does not, that John
McCain opposes legislation that would restore protection for the civil
right to equal pay for equal work. And we know, though much of the
public does not, that Barack Obama supports it, because Lilly Ledbetter
herself has been campaigning with him. But I think this war hero for
women's equal pay could help Obama even more by persuading him to push
Congress to pass a bill this fall.
There are battles a leader
takes because he or she is confronted by them. But there are also
battles a leader should make because they are for a just cause. The
battle for equal pay is clearly one of those just causes that should be
front and center this election year.Lilly Ledbetter says she continues for the sake of the younger women just entering the workforce, and she
speaks all over the country, urging them to be assertive about
negotiating for their fair pay from the beginning of their careers.
about time for working women to get Lilly's message, but way past time
for American women to get Congressional action on equal pay.
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