Lilly McDaniel Ledbetter (1938- ) is a worker's-rights activist and equal-pay advocate whose nine-year quest for equal compensation from longtime employer Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden, Etowah County, resulted in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-2), the first bill signed into law by Pres. Barack Obama. The law overturned the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Inc. and clarified the time period during which employees can pursue claims under antidiscrimination laws.
Lilly McDaniel was born on April 18, 1938, in Jacksonville, Calhoun County, to J. C. McDaniel, a mechanic at Anniston Army Depot, and Edna Smith McDaniel, a homemaker. As a young girl, Lilly McDaniel worked on her grandfather's nearby cotton farm. She went to Jacksonville High School and graduated in 1956. That year, she married Charles Ledbetter, with whom she had two children. She worked as a manager at H&R Block and as an assistant financial aid officer at Jacksonville State University before being hired in 1979 by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden as a line manager. Working toward a promotion, Ledbetter took several training courses and turned in the second-best performance of 150 other managers, most of whom were men. She then was promoted to area manager and assigned to the night shift. During her time at Goodyear, Ledbetter earned performance awards but also suffered sexual harassment, isolation, and day-to-day discrimination from the almost entirely male staff. In 1982, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about sexual harassment she faced from one of her bosses. Despite being branded a "troublemaker" by management, Ledbetter continued to excel at her job.
In 1998, Ledbetter was nearing retirement when she discovered an anonymous note in her locker informing her that she was being paid significantly less than her male counterparts. Whereas she earned $3,272.00 a month, three male managers were earning between $4,286.00 and $5,236.00. In response, Ledbetter filed a complaint with EEOC in July, claiming violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Equal Pay Act. In response, Ledbetter's supervisor at Goodyear, Kelly Owens, retaliated by assigning her to a position inspecting tires; she was required to lift heavy truck tires even though she was more than 60 years old. Ledbetter retired on November 1, 1998, earlier than she had planned because of the laborious work.
In early 1999, Ledbetter decided to pursue legal action against the company and hired an attorney, who filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama claiming wage discrimination under Title VII as well as several other complaints. The court allowed only some of her claims to proceed and excluded her claim under the Equal Pay Act, for which the court decided at the onset in favor of Goodyear. Ledbetter claimed that she had been evaluated unfairly because of her sex, and therefore had been paid significantly less than her male colleagues. In return, Goodyear claimed that their evaluations were not discriminatory but based on merit. When the trial, presided over by Judge U. W. Clemon, ended, the jury awarded Ledbetter $3.3 million, but the amount was later reduced to about $300,000 because of limits on the amount an employer must pay in civil rights damages. Goodyear appealed first to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, and then all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rendered a bitterly divided 5-4 ruling in favor of the company in May 2007, focusing on provisions in Title VII that stated an employee must file such a claim within 180 days of the first discriminatory action. The ruling reversed previous laws and placed a heavy burden on employees, who often have no way of knowing how much their peers are being paid. It also reversed any awards that Ledbetter had received, so she gained nothing financially from her lawsuit.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissenting opinion that the ruling made no sense because compensation disparities are often hidden from sight and transpire incrementally over time. Ledbetter, like many other wage earners, was required to sign a contract at the time of her employment that prohibited her from discussing pay rates with other employees. Ledbetter believed strongly that the Supreme Court had rendered a decision that would continue to hurt all women who might have to fight wage discrimination. She pressed her case in the U.S. Congress in the hope of achieving fair pay standards through the legislative process.
Attempts by congressional Democrats to amend existing law and remove the ambiguous time frame during the 110th Congress were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Ledbetter became a nationally recognized activist when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention in November 2008. She also campaigned actively for then-Senator Obama during his presidential campaign and was the second person (after Michelle Obama) to dance with the president at the inaugural ball in January 2009. Fair pay legislation was again introduced by congressional Democrats in the 111th Congress and, named for Ledbetter, approved by both Houses. (The only lawmaker in Alabama who supported passage was Democrat Artur Davis.) The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was signed into law on January 29, 2009. Among the law's provisions are a broadening of the scope for workers to challenge unfair workplace practices in court and an alteration of the statute of limitations rule so that a new 180-day period begins after each paycheck is issued. Unfortunately for Ledbetter, the legislation was not retroactive, so she saw no gain from it.
Immediately after her success with the Fair Pay Act, Ledbetter began working toward the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would increase workplace transparency so that employees can inquire into the pay rates of their peers. One provision would have prohibited employers from taking action against workers who share or seek salary information. The legislation passed the House of Representatives in January 2009, but stalled in the Senate after failing to garner support from Republican members. Ledbetter has said that the kind of retaliation she suffered at her company prevents many people from speaking up because they fear losing their jobs. She has also spoken about the toll that lengthy litigation can take on those pursuing fairness.
Ledbetter continues to live in Jacksonville and travel for occasional speaking engagements, where she lectures on workers'
rights and fair-pay laws and legislation. She is currently working on her memoir which is scheduled to be published by Random
House in 2012. She will be inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in September 2011 in New York City.
Brown, Heidi. "Equal Payback for Lilly Ledbetter." Forbes.com, April 28, 2009. [See Related Links]
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 550 U.S. 618 (2007) [See Related Links]
Barbara A. Baker
Published August 15, 2011
Last updated May 13, 2014