Opinion: Lilly Ledbetter wasn’t lazy; she -- and all women -- just want equal pay


Regardless of Opinion L.A. guest blogger Charlotte Allen’s ridiculously inflammatory contention that “Despite its cute graphic, Paycheck Fairness Act was evil spawn of Lilly Ledbetter,” the facts remain discouraging for women when it comes to equal pay.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, women in America earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women of color earn even less: For African American women, the figure is 69 cents, and for Latino women, it’s 58 cents. In 2012, the median income of American women working full time year-round was $37,791; for men, it was nearly $50,000.

This year will be the worst for income disparity in U.S. history, likely only to be bested by 2015. This comes at a bad time: Increasingly, low- to moderate-income families in America must rely on women’s income and benefits to make ends meet.


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Wage disparity -- which exists in every state and in nearly every occupation -- is, in the end, not a women’s rights issue but a family issue. Nevertheless, this month, the Paycheck Fairness Act died, almost exclusively because of Republican politicians -- many of them conservatives who campaigned and won on platforms that included strong family values.

Those conservatives had pundits like Allen to provide a faulty intellectual foundation. The following statement by her was a particularly egregious one that belies a total misunderstanding of Lilly Ledbetter and the legislation bearing her name: “The Lilly Ledbetter Act added nothing to the right of women to be paid on an equal basis with men. It merely gave women who were too lazy to sue promptly -- or who wanted to wait until they had retired to sue -- a second shot.”

I spent two years of my life with Ledbetter coauthoring her autobiography. Call her what you may, but one thing you can’t imply about her is that she’s lazy.

Formerly a supervisor with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Ledbetter was awarded $3.8 million by a federal jury in 2003 after suing her employer for pay discrimination. That amount was reduced by law to $360,000 in back pay and benefits. Clearly, a jury of her peers did not view Ledbetter as someone who was too lazy to sue or who waited to sue until her retirement. Draining her small savings to subsidize her legal battle, and maintaining her courage and conviction over the course of a decade, does not smack of a conniving woman’s get-rich-quick scheming.

As far as the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act is concerned, the keyword here is “restoration.” The legislation restored the paycheck accrual rule under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to its original intent, defining the starting point for discriminatory behavior as the last discriminatory paycheck. In other words, each new paycheck is a new starting point for the discriminatory act, which allows women the ability to pursue their equal pay claims even if they were prevented from learning about pay discrimination until long after the original discriminatory pay decision was made.


Trickery and manipulation can only flourish in environments where full disclosure about what people are making doesn’t exist. That’s what the executive order President Obama signed two weeks ago seeks to accomplish by banning federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their salaries.

Who’s to blame for the failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act to pass? Regardless of the administration’s silly retro graphic or Allen’s conspiracy theory that Ledbetter and the legislation are pawns of Obama’s campaign machine, the answer is fairly simple: The act died thanks to those who voted against it and the politically charged rhetoric (like Allen’s “evil spawn” invective) that drowned out a more civil discourse about the wage gap.

Unfortunately, the 23-cent wage gap has remained intact over the years, a troubling fact for a modern economy in which more women are entering the workforce and families increasingly depend on women’s wages to survive. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up 47% of the workforce and are projected to account for 51% of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018. Also, 4 in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary breadwinner for her family, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census and polling data released last year.

Lilly Ledbetter is not Obama’s poster child to secure the female vote; far from it. She is a real person who overcame unimaginable obstacles in the workplace. A tireless advocate for pay equity, Lilly Ledbetter is a woman who continues to work toward the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act -- and for the day when women are no longer kept silent about their true worth.


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Lanier Isom is the coauthor, with Lilly Ledbetter, of “Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.”