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Lilly Ledbetter tells Daemen audience the fight for equal pay continues

The woman whose efforts to establish pay equity between men and women resulted in President Obama’s first piece of legislation – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act – says the battle is not yet over.

“We still have a long way to go. We’re not near where we should be yet for our working women and families across this nation,” Ledbetter told a standing-room-only crowd Monday in the Wick Center Social Room at Daemen College in Snyder.

The women’s rights activist and author of “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond” shared her journey from growing up in rural poverty in the South to becoming one the first women to be hired at the management level at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber factory in Gadsden, Ala., in 1979.

She found out 19 years later from an anonymous source that she was making thousands of dollars less per year than her male counterparts doing the same job.

Not only was it a demoralizing revelation for Ledbetter, but she soon realized that it also had short-changed her and her family and her earnings toward her retirement.

“I was an only child, but my parents felt I should learn the work ethic. The only job available to me during my growing-up years was picking cotton,” said Ledbetter.

“So I do know what hard work is, and I do know that you give a good day’s work for a good day’s pay.”

In 1998, she made a decision to fight for pay equity, her rights and her family.

She called it a life-changing decision, but at the same time one that he has never regretted.

She filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear, but it would be three years before her case made it to court.

She won, then lost on appeal.

Over the next eight years she remained steadfast as her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

She lost again when, with the backing of the court’s conservative wing, the justices ruled that Ledbetter should have filed her lawsuit within 180 days of having received her first paycheck from Goodyear back in 1979, despite the fact that Ledbetter had no way of knowing that she was being paid unfairly.

Under threat of termination, Goodyear employees were forbidden to discuss their wages with their co-workers, Ledbetter said.

Encouraged by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent encouraging her to fight back, Ledbetter and her attorneys lobbied Congress, where she and supporters won bipartisan support in both the House and Senate for a bill that amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act so that unfair-pay complaints could be filed within 180 days of a discriminatory act, with the 180 days resetting after each paycheck is issued.

In January 2009, the bill bearing her name was signed into law by the newly elected President Obama, who noted at the signing:

“We are upholding one of the nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness.”

Ledbetter never received restitution from Goodyear, but her name has gone into the history books.