President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law Thursday. “I'm so excited I can hardly stand it,” Ledbetter said after the bill passed the Senate.
Obama told her story over and over when he campaigned for president: How Ledbetter, now 70, spent years working as a plant supervisor at a tire factory in Alabama. How, when she neared retirement, someone slipped her a pay schedule that showed her male colleagues were making much more money than she was. A jury found her employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., to be really, really guilty of pay discrimination. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision led by Bush appointees, threw out her case, ruling that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the first time Goodyear paid her less than her peers.
Until the Supreme Court stepped in, courts generally presumed that the 180-day time limit began the last time an employee got a discriminatory pay check, not the first. In an attempt at bipartisan comity, the Senate decided to simply restore the status quo, rejecting House efforts to make the law tougher. Even then, only five Republican senators voted for it – four women and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is currently the most threatened of the deeply endangered species known as moderate Republicans.
Ledbetter, who was widowed in December, won't get any restitution of her lost wages; her case can't be retried. She's now part of a long line of working women who went to court and changed a little bit of the world in fights that often brought them minimal personal benefit.
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Another was Eulalie Cooper, a flight attendant who sued Delta Air Lines in the mid-'60s when she was fired for being married. Not only did a Louisiana judge uphold the airline industry's bizarre rules requiring stewardesses to be young and single; Cooper was denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that by getting married she left her job “voluntarily.”
But she began a pattern of litigation that eventually ended the industry's insistence that women needed to look like sex objects in order to properly care for passengers on airplanes. Next time you talk about US Airways Flight 1549's spectacular landing on the Hudson River, remember that the three flight attendants who kept calm in the ditched plane were all women in their 50s and give a nod to people like Eulalie Cooper.
Patricia Lorance, an Illinois factory worker, went to court after her union and employer secretly agreed to new seniority rules that discriminated against the women who had been promoted in the post-Civil Rights Act era of the 1970s. Like Ledbetter, she lost her court fight because of a ridiculous ruling about timing, which had to be fixed by Congress.
Working at a series of lower-paying jobs after the factory closed, and then disabled by physical ailments, Lorance lost track of her case long before it finally wound its way through the Supreme Court. “But to this day, I am rather proud of myself because I was not a dumb person. I believe in just standing up and fighting for your own rights,” she said in an interview.
Ledbetter's real soul sister is Lorena Weeks of Wadley, Ga. Weeks, now 80, had worked two jobs to support her orphaned siblings, then struggled with her husband to set enough money aside to assure their children would be able to go to college. A longtime telephone employee, she applied for a higher-paying job overseeing equipment at the central office. Both her union and the management said the job was unsuitable for a woman because it involved pushing 30-pound equipment on a dolly, even though Weeks toted around a 34-pound typewriter at her clerical job.
Weeks v. Southern Bell helped smash employers' old dodge of keeping women out of higher-paying positions by claiming that they required qualifications only men could fulfill. But it was a long, painful fight during which Weeks was terrified that she might lose her job entirely. “I felt like I was so alone, and yet I knew I was doing what God wanted me to do. Going back to the fact my momma had died working so hard. And I knew women worked and needed a place in the world,” she said.
It's a good day for the feisty working women who went to court to demand their rights and the frequently underpaid lawyers who championed them. Most of them made their stands and then returned to their ordinary lives. But they're a special sorority all the same. And Lilly Ledbetter got to go to the inauguration and dance with the new president.
“Tell her congratulations,” said Lorena Weeks.