Lilly Ledbetter: A Fair Pay Icon
Via James Lane Post
It’s the story of a woman who knows the true meaning of labor. The story of a woman who fought not only for her right to fair pay, but for the rights of women across this country.
Her name is Lilly Ledbetter.
She took her fight for equal pay all the way to the United States Supreme Court and then to the United States Congress. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama. She penned a book, “Grace and Grit,” that is now used in many college curriculums. And today a feature film about the life of Lilly Ledbetter is in the works. In “LILLY,” directed by Rachel Feldman, she will be played by the Oscar-nominated Patricia Clarkson.
But first, some backstory.
Ledbetter worked for 19 years at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Alabama, as a night supervisor. She took the job in 1979 at age 39 to help her family, who were struggling to make ends meet. She had grown up in poverty in Possum Trot, Alabama, with no electricity or running water, picking cotton for eight cents per day, striving to be part of the middle class. She knew the value of not only a dollar, but also a penny.
When she was nearing retirement, she describes receiving an anonymous note alerting her that the salary of her male coworkers, who held the same position, was 40 percent higher than her own paycheck.
“I was devastated,” said Ledbetter. “I was just humiliated.”
“I didn’t know how many people in the factory knew it,” she continued. “I didn’t know how many people were laughing behind my back and making a joke about it. I just could not believe that a major corporation like Goodyear Tire & Rubber would be doing this to me and my family. This was devastating because I was a middle-class family. It was hard. It was really hard. We went through tough times. My husband lost his job and with two children it was really difficult.”
After working over a decade in a position where she was often paid overtime, and her 401K and retirement were all based on her salary, she knew she had to fight for the pay she had rightfully earned.
“I just wanted to run and hide to be truthful,” she said. “But I couldn’t because I still had a mortgage. I still had car payments. I had kids in college. I had bills to pay. I couldn’t quit. So I had to stay and work my 12-hour shift.”
Even though she was two years away from retirement, “I was entitled to equal pay,” she said, knowing that John F. Kennedy had signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
RBG to the Rescue
She warned her family that she would file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employer Opportunity Commission in Birmingham. The fight would be a long one. And it was. It took nine years from start to finish. The lower federal court awarded her $3.8 million, though she would only be entitled $60,000 of that.
Goodyear appealed the verdict. And her case, with the help of young civil rights lawyer Jon Goldfarb, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
“They heard my case loud and clear,” said Ledbetter. “It was proven there just like it was in the lower court — beyond a shadow of a doubt I had been discriminated against for no other reason than I was a female.”
According to Ledbetter, to this day Goodyear claims she was a poor performer. But the argument made by her and many others is: Why would they employ and promote a poor performer over a 20-year period?
“The men treated her abysmally,” said Feldman about Ledbetter’s time at Goodyear. “This was hard, grueling, dirty work — she was always the first one in and the last one out.”
“She suffered tremendous psychological and emotional harassment, let alone sexual and physical harassment — they slashed her tires, they cracked her windshield, they filled her car with tobacco juice, they tried to run her off the road, they threatened her family,” said Feldman. “And yet her desire to keep her family in the middle class compelled her to be able to surmount these awful circumstances until she found out they were cheating her.”
The company offered her a buyout in 1998, which she took. “I should have never taken the buyout. That’s the worst mistake I made,” she said. “I got 80 percent of my base pay, my check was $28,000. The guy on the day shift that took it got $85,000.”
She lost her case in the Supreme Court with a 5 to 4 vote. It was ruled she was not within the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination.
“But Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke from the bench and spoke to Lilly directly and said, ‘Lilly, there is one more thing you can do. You can go to congress and tell your story,’” Feldman recalled.
She was met by the American Civil Liberties Union, The National Women’s Law Center, and several other organizations that wanted to help educate her and fund her trips to Washington. At the time, she was also dealing with personal trauma, her husband Charles, her high school sweetheart, was terminally ill with cancer.
“He wanted her to keep fighting no matter what,” said Feldman. And fight she did.
Since the Supreme Court verdict was made Ledbetter’s motto has been, “Everyday I must make a difference for someone,” she said.
Ledbetter spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 into law, cementing Lilly’s story in American history, he stated “Lilly Ledbetter didn’t set out to be a trailblazer or a household name. She was just a good hard worker who did her job – and did it well – for nearly two decades before discovering that for years, she was paid less than her male colleagues for the very same work. Over the course of her career, she lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits – losses she still feels today.”
“I’m so proud of the Ledbetter bill because it was sponsored and co-sponsored with Republicans and Democrats and some Independents,” said Ledbetter.
The law overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, and amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making each paycheck that contains discriminatory compensation a separate violation, no matter when the discrimination began.
Knowing she would not received any additional payment from Goodyear, Lilly kept her fight alive for all women in the workforce.
Lilly Ledbetter and Rachel Feldman.
“I saw Lilly on television at the Democratic Convention in 2008 and while I had heard her name before, I really didn’t know her story and I’d never heard her speak. And when I heard her speak with that beautiful Alabama mountain accent I was just driven to know more about her — I called her the very next day,” said Feldman, whose directing credits include “Criminal Minds” and “Blue Bloods.”
While many are familiar with Lilly’s political achievements, the film aims to tell a heartbreaking family narrative exhibiting the personal toll it took for her to challenge a large corporation.
“The movie will not be for me, but it will be for the young people and the people out there today working across this nation,” said Ledbetter.
“I saw that there was a way into this film from a psychological point of view as a political thriller, to really show the audience an exciting roller coaster ride of euphoria and heartbreak that this woman experienced and to tell it in a very Hollywood commercial way like ‘Erin Brockovich’ or ‘Spotlight’ or any of the social justice dramas that have come before us,” Feldman said. “My goal is to tell a story about a woman, who put her personal life on the line and the psychological costs of fighting for justice when you’re a small town Alabama wife, mother, and factory worker.”
In an aptly cast film, Feldman said that to have Patricia Clarkson play Lilly Ledbetter, with Josh Lucas as her husband Charles, and Thomas Sadoski as her attorney Jon Goldfarb is “really a dream come true.”
Ledbetter and Feldman both expressed their excitement for the cast in place for the film.
“The center of this movie is a love story between Lilly and Charles,” said Feldman.
“The fella that’s playing my husband, I said, ‘All he needs is piercing blue eyes.’ And I understand Josh Lucas has that,” said Ledbetter of the “Sweet Home Alabama” star. Clarkson brings to the role the experience of growing up in the south with her mother, Jackie Clarkson, working in politics in New Orleans for decades.
“She grew up in the South, so she’ll understand the southern drawl,” said Ledbetter. Clarkson “will bring both delicacy and gravitas, which is exactly what Lilly has,” said Feldman.
“It’s been a long journey for me to get this picture made,” said Feldman. “Lilly has a remarkable personal story. As a woman who’s been working in Hollywood since my 20s and has endured gender discrimination and exclusion in my industry in a very significant kind of way, I’ve been awakened and woke to what gender discrimination and exclusion does for women in employment. And so her story spoke to me on a personal level and a political level.”
Feldman has been speaking out against gender discrimination in Hollywood for many years. “I’m so grateful that within my own lifetime, I see a change,” she said. Feldman also noted that she will hire mostly women and people of color for the heads of department on the film.
The film itself is completely independently financed, with over $10 million raised in equity investment and non-profit contributions. Unusually so for a feature motion picture, people who are interested in supporting the making of this film can make tax deductible donations via The Film Collaborative by visiting thefilmcollaborative.org. To date, donors have contributed over $1.5 million dollars, demonstrating the strong resonance of the film’s message.
The producers of the movie, inspired by Lilly’s persistence in working for social change, have started a related social action project, +Rise. The purpose is to elevate women in the workplace by making it equal, fair, and safe for all. They’re building partnerships with brands and leading non-profits working in these areas to drive collaboration and make effective change.
Photo by Lisa Tamburini
To celebrate the film, James Lane Post partnered with hosts Christine Prydatko, Jayne Baron Sherman, Abigail Rose Solomon, Wendy Federman, and Kerianne Flynn to host a conversation with Ledbetter and Feldman to discuss the film. The event included a cocktail reception with dishes create by Lulu Kitchen & Bar’s Chef Philippe Corbet and managing partner Steven Jauffrineau.
Ledbetter’s advice to women who might be experiencing gender discrimination in the workplace?
“Be proactive,” she said. “Research that company and make sure you’re getting the rightful pay that you’re entitled to. Because once it’s gone, there’s not any way an individual can get it back. It’s gone forever.” She noted how crucial it is in terms of retirement and social security.
“I’ve learned that the average woman in this country, we outlive our spouses by 10 years. I’m now going into my 12th year as a widow. The women don’t make near the money the man might,” she said. As of 2020, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“That’s the problem. Women are locked in these jobs,” she continued. “They’re afraid to say something. They know that if they do they’ll lose their jobs, and this is not right.”
With Labor Day around the corner, we recognize the contribution of all laborers in this country. The fight for equal pay is ongoing in the workforce, and Ledbetter has spent years leading the charge for positive change.
“She is a women of tremendous grace, and tremendous grit,” said Feldman.
For Lilly, it’s knowing that, “When I’m gone I want the last thing they say is, ‘She did make a difference’.”