Lilly Ledbetter is 80.
And she couldn’t believe that she was back at the U.S. Supreme Court, standing on the marble steps that bring back such awful memories.
“I had to come back,” she said, in the Alabama drawl she says she’s finally made peace with. “Didn’t think I would, but here we are.”
Ledbetter returned to Washington because she’s also making peace with the truth that the battle for equal pay is a long way from over.
She is the face of equal pay. The underpaid woman who fought back. A hero for workers on Labor Day.
But 10 years after a law named for her was enacted to help close America’s wage gap, little has changed.
For American women. Or for Ledbetter herself.
It was 11 years ago that she left the Supreme Court in defeat, after the majority ruled in favor of the men who discriminated against her for two decades at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. They knowingly paid her up to 40 percent less than all the men with equal jobs in her division.
The reason she lost?
She didn’t complain about it within the 180-day deadline required under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the one that was supposed to fix all this 55 years ago.
It was a cruel decision given that so much of the persistent gender wage gap — studies show that women still make 79 cents to every dollar an American man makes — goes unchecked because of our culture of salary secrecy.
You know it’s true. Unless you’re a boss, you probably have no clue what your co-workers make, even if y’all are friends. We simply don’t talk about it.
Ledbetter knows this. And she also knows that the highest court in the land, which did nothing for her, is unlikely to help the rest of us.
And that’s why she came back to Washington, to those steps. Because confirmation hearings begin for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Tuesday, right after Labor Day.
“I’m here to say that Brett Kavanaugh is not the one we need in the Supreme Court,” she said at a rally organized by labor unions and the National Women’s Law Center to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The Supreme Court’s decision is the reason she can’t afford home repairs today, the reason her retirement savings and Social Security checks are shockingly smaller than the ones the retired guys from her plant get (even the guys who were her underlings).
“The Supreme Court — those five people — changed the direction of my life,” she told me. “They changed who I am.”
She came because of Kavanaugh’s judicial record as an appeals court judge.
“In employment discrimination claims, Judge Kavanaugh’s opinions over the years typically favored the employer,” said an analysis done by Littler Mendelson P.C., a law firm that often represents employers in labor disputes.
Ledbetter was one of the few female supervisors at the Goodyear plant in 1979. And for two decades, she dodged pawing from male colleagues, put her head down and worked. Until someone left her an anonymous, handwritten note comparing her salary to the pile of dough her male co-workers were making. Even the lowest-paid guy in her division made more than her. Newbies made more.
So she sued. And the jury in the Alabama District Court agreed that she was being shafted and awarded her about $300,000 in back pay.
Goodyear, however, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court on the 180-day technicality.
Hung up on those 180 days, the Supreme Court ruled in the tire maker’s favor in 2007.
That year, Sen. Barack Obama proposed legislation that would allow workers to sue whenever they learned they’d been cheated. He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law nine days after he was sworn in as president.
That did nothing for Ledbetter herself, of course.
“She knew it was too late for her — that this bill wouldn’t undo the years of injustice she faced or restore the earnings she was denied,” Obama said back then. “But this grandmother from Alabama kept on fighting, because she was thinking about the next generation.”
She still gets emails, letters and calls from people whose lives have been changed by the law.
Her favorite came from a pair of educators in New York. The husband told Ledbetter that he had joined his wife at the school where she’d been teaching for years, and he thought it was an error when his first paycheck came, and it was so much more than his wife’s paycheck, even though she was equally qualified and his senior.
“Oh, yes, the men are the first in line to tell me how much it means to them for their daughter and wives to be paid fairly,” she said.
The outlook for pay equity is discouraging. Last year the Trump administration reversed a 2016 rule introduced by Obama that would have required companies to include breakdowns by gender and race in pay data reported to the government. It would have exposed pay differences among about 63 million American workers.
“There are so, so many people who are in the same boat as me,” she said. “The cost of living goes up and up and up. It’s a struggle for people in the middle, on down. And I know firsthand that in a place like the Supreme Court, decisions are made that can hurt us.”
And that’s why she came back to those steps.