In 2006, Lilly Ledbetter sat in the hushed courtroom of the Supreme Court and listened to the arguments in her pay discrimination case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. One of the young Stanford law students sitting near her kept whispering, “It’s only right; the law is on our side. This has to go forward.”
But in 2007, the court ruled against Ledbetter in a 5-4 decision. The judges were not on her side. Justice Samuel Alito and others believed that Ledbetter should have complained every time she received a smaller pay raise than her male counterparts. They stated that Ledbetter waited too long to sue — but she had no way of knowing when her first discriminatory paycheck was issued or what others were paid. (The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, outlined a 180-day deadline for complaints.)
When Ledbetter started at Goodyear in 1979, from Day 1 she says she fought sexual harassment and discrimination. Her tires were slashed, her windshield broken, and in general, she was intimidated on and off the shop floor. She struggled with her safety over the course of her 19-year career there. She might have suspected she was being paid unfairly, but Ledbetter worked in the good-old-boy culture of silence and fear. One of the first rules she learned working for Goodyear was that if employees talked about their salaries, they would be fired.
That day in May 2007, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told her colleagues they had no true understanding of the real world. When she stood up to deliver her now famous dissent, she said, “The court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”
Ginsburg urged Ledbetter not to accept the court’s decision, not to be defeated by the misguided ruling. And in that moment began a friendship between a woman with a thick Southern accent and a high school education, and an Ivy League-educated judge with a tight dark bun and large glasses, a pioneer voice for landmark decisions dealing with gender discrimination.
Ginsburg motivated Ledbetter to start a grass-roots campaign. For two long years while her husband, Charles, was fighting cancer, Ledbetter hit the road as she and other women tirelessly campaigned in the halls of Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.
After the Supreme Court decision, Ledbetter spent two weeks of each month in Washington, depending on Charles’s doctor appointments, treatments and hospital stays. A typical day started at 5 a.m., with a call-in talk radio show, followed by meetings with congressional staff members, news conferences and more media interviews. Ledbetter testified before both the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate twice.
The law would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision, making sure individuals subjected to unlawful pay discrimination had effective recourse to assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws. The bill reinstated the prior law and adopted the paycheck accrual rule, making each discriminatory paycheck, rather than the original decision to discriminate, the starting point for the new claim-filing period, which is 180 days.
Finally, in 2009, with strong bipartisan support, President Barack Obama passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act as his first piece of legislation. Ledbetter may not have won her case, but heeding Ginsburg’s call, she made sure generations of women after her would not have to fight the same battle she did.
“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 at the time. “But this grandmother from Alabama kept on fighting, because she was thinking about the next generation.”
In 2017, the Trump administration rolled back the guidelines Obama put in place to address exactly what Ledbetter, Ginsburg and all working women faced in the workforce. The administration revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, which included a rule about paycheck transparency and a ban on forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination claims. The order was intended to prevent companies violating the law from being awarded federal contracts.
The current Congress has also failed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which holds employers accountable for punitive actions toward employees who discuss pay, puts the burden on employers to justify why employees are paid less, and allows workers to sue for punitive damages for wage discrimination. If this campaign against civil rights continues to follow its current trajectory, we will live in a world far worse than the culture and society civil rights legislation was meant to rectify in the first place.
My father-in-law, an attorney, says it often takes a well-placed lawsuit to change the world for the better. Because Ginsburg recognized the abject failure of the high court to provide justice for Ledbetter and other victims of pay discrimination, she lit a fire in Ledbetter, who went on to spend so much of her life fighting for equal rights.
Ledbetter and Ginsburg may not have known how their words and actions would change the world, but they knew how to say no and how to work for decades against the odds.
Every woman who cares about justice for all must now embody that same spirit of righteousness in honor of these two incredible women.