Lilly Ledbetter, who initiated the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and fought against workplace discrimination spoke to the Southern Miss community Tuesday evening for the University Forum in Bennett Auditorium. In “Grace and Grit,” a presentation titled after her book, Ledbetter described her legal fight for justice.
“What happened to me is happening to women every day across this nation,” Ledbetter said. “One in five children will go to bed hungry tonight simply because one of their parents, most likely their mother, is not paid what she’s legally earning under the law.”
She strived for women’s equal pay and made an effort to implement a law through the federal government.
“One of the cool things about Ledbetter’s story is that it’s so universal,” said University Forum Director Andrew Haley. “There were people in the audience who see their own lives reflected in what happened on stage in her story, and also that half of our audience was made up of young women that are about to go into the workforce.”
Ledbetter’s efforts were commemorated when legislation named the bill after her. With a suit against a former employer, she fought her way to the Supreme Court to combat workplace discrimination.
“One of the things I admire most about Lilly Ledbetter is she set out as a radical to change the world,” Haley said. “She set out to fend herself from an unfair society.”
Ledbetter’s journey to justice began when she started working at Goodyear Tire and Rubbers plant in Gadsden, Alabama.
Nearly 20 years later, someone put a secret note on her paycheck, revealing she was being paid significantly less than her male counterparts in the workplace.
Ledbetter endured years of discrimination and disagreement with her movement. She sued for sex discrimination in pay through Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964. She fought for the cause for eight years and won at the District Court. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed that decision, and the Supreme Court ruled against her.
Ledbetter refused to stop there. For two years, she lobbied against sex discrimination, leading the U.S. Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
“It was the first bill President Obama signed, and it set the stage for real progress in our fight for equal pay,” Ledbetter said.
The act mitigates the process for women in the case of sex discrimination in pay.
“It’s been seven years since I stood beside the President and he signed the Ledbetter Bill, a bill that allows people to challenge every discriminatory paycheck they receive,” Ledbetter said.
“I’ve learned that you young women need to be aware that if you are not asserting your rights from the beginning, even in what seems like a very progressive moment of age, there is no incentive for corporations and companies to pay more if they don’t have to,” Haley said.
The fifth University Forum of the academic year strung in a crowd of nearly 200. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed,” will present the next and last university forum event of the semester on April 12.
“We are engaged with the issues that matter, and despite what the national media might say about Mississippi, we are open to new ideas,” Haley said.