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This Day in History: Equal Pay Trailblazer Lilly Ledbetter Turns 77

This blog post details the life of equal pay trailblazer Lilly Ledbetter.


Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Signing

President Barack Obama signs into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in the East Room of the White House. January 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Joyce Boghosian)

Lilly's Story

On April 14, 1938, Lilly Ledbetter was born in rural Alabama. After marrying Sergeant Major Charles Ledbetter, she had two children whom she needed to support.

So in 1979, she took a job working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a shift manager and area manager at the local Goodyear plant. After being hired, Lilly was asked to sign the company contract policy that barred her from discussing pay rates with her co-workers.

In 1996, Lilly received a "Top Performance Award" but was still completely in the dark about the fact that she was paid far less for the same work as her male peers.

Two years later, in 1998, Lilly went about her normal routine and came into work an hour early to check her mail, when an anonymous note fell out. On the note, she saw her name next to her written salary of $3,727 a month. Below it were the names of three male co-workers with the same title, with salaries ranging from $4,286 to $5,236 a month.

Lilly's Legal Battle 

After filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Lilly set out to make things right. That journey would take her more than 10 years and all the way to the Supreme Court.

In her first trial, the jury ruled in her favor and awarded her back pay and the cost of compensatory and punitive damages. But Goodyear appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and won.

Goodyear argued that Lilly's claim was not valid under Title VII’s limitations period. This fine print states that an employee cannot challenge ongoing pay discrimination more than 180 days later, even when the employee continues to receive paychecks that have been discriminatorily reduced. Since Lilly had only received two paychecks within the 180 days of her claim, only two paychecks were admissible proof in a courtroom. As a result, the court ruled that there was insufficient legal evidence that proved Goodyear had been intending to discriminate against her. 

Lilly's appeal made it all the way to the Supreme Court. But in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court upheld the Eleventh Circuit decision and ruled against Lilly, citing Title VII again. 

Not only did the decision allow pay discrimination to continue, it encouraged employers to benefit from it. With each discriminatorily reduced paycheck, employers continued to earn financial benefits from discrimination.

Justice Ginsberg wrote a dissenting opinion, which emphasized that it was up to Congress to correct the Court’s “parsimonious reading of Title VII.” Taking the rare step of reading her opinion from the bench, Justice Ginsberg instructed that “once again, the ball is in Congress’ court.”

Achieving Justice: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009

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Within the first month of 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed. Less than two years after the Ledbetter decision, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became the first law signed by President Obama.

The Act amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ensured that Americans subjected to unlawful pay discrimination are finally able to effectively assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws. Each discriminatory paycheck (rather than the employer’s original decision to discriminate) resets the 180-day limit to file a claim.

Coincidentally, Lilly's birthday this year falls on Equal Pay Day. Equal Pay Day changes annually, symbolizing how far into the year women must work to earn the same amount that men earned in the previous year. We still have a long way to go but, thanks to advocates like Lilly Ledbetter, we continue to fight for equal pay.

Today, Lilly is a grandmother of four and says her proudest achievement is “having a bill named after her in Congress, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.”

President Barack Obama's inscription on his Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act Bill

President Barack Obama's inscription on his Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act Bill remarks given to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitors Center, in Seneca Falls, New York, during the college affordability bus tour, Aug. 22, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)