Ledbetter speaks from the stage in the Parnell Memorial Library Theatre. The lecture consisted of an overview of her life as an advocate for fair pay and a call-to-action of young female students. Photo by Katie Compton.
Equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter spoke in Parnell Library March 10 as part of the Hallie Farmer Lecture Series. University President John Stewart opened the evening by welcoming Ledbetter on behalf of all the young women and parents associated with the university.
Ledbetter began by stating what an honor it was to be speaking as part of this series in Montevallo. The Possum Trail, Alabama native shared the story of her personal battle for equal pay against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. After working as a supervisor at Goodyear’s Gadsden radial tire plant for nearly 20 years, she received an anonymous note showing that she was being paid only 40% the salary of her male counterparts. “I was devastated,” Ledbetter said, continuing, “I realized that this inequality would follow me out of the job and into retirement through my Social Security, 401(k) and pension, affecting my ability to pay for my children’s college tuition, mortgage, car payments, utilities and food.”
Considering the impact of this unfair payment, Ledbetter took the information to the Equal Employment Commission, where she was told she had “one of the best cases” and should find an attorney. The historic discrimination case that ensued went all the way up from Calhoun County to the U.S. Supreme Court over the course of nine years. During this time, Ledbetter was ostracized at work, experienced the ups and down of appeals and had to travel to Washington, D.C., to testify while her husband Charles underwent radiation therapy for cancer treatment.
The Supreme Court ultimately decided against compensation for Ledbetter, stating that she filed her claim too late after her last unequal paycheck, despite the fact that she filed as soon as she was made aware of the discrepancy. However, Ledbetter continued to advocate for her cause, because she “knew the law was on her side.” Her work in D.C. resulted in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on Jan. 29, 2009.
After telling her own story, Ledbetter stressed the importance of ensuring equal pay for equal work across all genders and races. “I originally thought this was just an issue in the Southeast,” she said, “but I have discovered that it affects family across the nation and around the world.” She pointed out several agencies that have helped her in her cause, highlighting the National Women’s Law Center and American Association of University Women (AAUW). She concluded her lecture by stating “We must overcome history and do better.”
The speaker then opened the room up to questions, prefacing with answers to two common inquiries: “No, I don’t know who wrote that letter, and no, I don’t buy Goodyear tires.”
In response to a question regarding whether she considered herself a feminist, she said, “If the definition of a feminist is someone who fights for equality under the law, then you could turn me one.”
She also shared that she was never issued an apology by Goodyear. To this day, the company still claims her unequal pay was not discriminatory but based on “poor performance,” even though she was kept on as a supervisor for over 19 years despite Alabama being a “fire-at-will” state.
Ledbetter encouraged women who want to be involved in advocacy to help in the fight against injustice to join the AAUW, which provides information about current legislature that would affect equality in the U.S. Answering a question about the smaller victories she encounters in her ongoing battle, she said “Little things kept me going through the tough times, and you can be a part of those by staying in contact with your representatives.” In closing, Ledbetter said, “Change is happening- it goes in government and universities. Get what you’re entitled to.”
The night rounded out with a small reception at which Ledbetter signed copies of the book she co-authored about her experiences, “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.” She also posed for pictures. The next Hallie Farmer Lecture will be held in 2017, when the committee will choose another prominent speaker to present a lecture “representative to the work and lifetime goals of Hallie Farmer”.