A room full of men and women, young and old, gave a standing ovation to advocate Lilly Ledbetter when she finished her lecture Monday night at Kansas University. Ledbetter spoke about how she fought to receive equal pay as a woman and her work to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.
“I was an ordinary person living the American dream ... not knowing I was being shortchanged,” she said.
After 19 years of working for Goodyear Tires, Ledbetter received an anonymous note showing she made 40 percent less pay than her white male counterparts. The next day she filed a case for employment discrimination, which was the start of a nine-year battle with the company.
“I had no idea I was so underpaid,” Ledbetter said. “(My pay) wasn’t even in the gate, much less the ballpark (of the men’s pay).”
When the case reached a federal court in 2003, Ledbetter was awarded $3.8 million, but Goodyear was quick to appeal.
“I knew going in I’d never get any money,” Ledbetter said.
Despite the fact that she wouldn’t get the funds to make up the 40 percent difference, Ledbetter kept fighting the case because the law was on her side.
Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Goodyear, which caused Ledbetter and her lawyer to go to Washington, D.C., to try to get the Fair Pay Restoration Act passed. It was supported by both Republicans and Democrats, and Ledbetter believes that is because the bill has nothing to do with either party but instead is a fundamental American right.
The signing of the bill was President Barack Obama’s first official act as president.
KU law student Elizabeth Lobaugh said she thought it was important for young people to hear the lecture so they could better understand the discrimination taking place that they may not be aware of.
“You can’t solve a problem that people don’t realize exists,” Lobaugh said.
Ledbetter’s speech, and the signing for her book “Grace and Grit” that followed the lecture, were part of the Jana Mackey Distinguished Lecture Series, which was established to raise awareness of women’s rights.
“The most important thing is to see so many young people here,” said Christie Brungard, Mackey’s mother and co-founder of the Jana’s Campaign group. “Both young men and women need to know: We’re not there yet.”