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Q&A with Lilly Ledbetter

Mary Gibble

   In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter landed her dream job as a manager at the Goodyear tire factory near her hometown of Possum Trot, Alabama. Nearly 20 years later, she discovered she was being paid significantly less than her male counterparts. She decided to take action and embarked upon a lawsuit that would take her all the way to the Supreme Court. When her claim was denied by a vote of 5-4, Ledbetter viewed the ruling as the end of her journey. But then Washington came calling. In 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. Today, she travels around the world as a pay equality activist. On May 2, she'll speak at the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches' Women in Leadership Awards. When I spoke with Ledbetter, she was en route to the White House. She opened up to PBI about her life and what comes next.

PBI: I want to take you back to the day President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; what was going through your mind as you watched him speak your praises and later sign the bill?

Well, I heard what he said that this was not just a woman's issue and that this was for every American family. And that's what was going through my mind was how much the stroke of that pen meant so much more than just ink on the paper to so many people.

What did you do with the pen he gave you afterwards?

I have it, along with a copy of the bill, framed in my home. It's beautiful. The lady who framed it for me, she gave it to me for free in honor of her daughter and granddaughter. It's beautiful.

What was the most challenging aspect of the lawsuit for you personally?

It would have been getting ready for the initial trial because it was a lot of work; it was time consuming. The response from other people was not always positive; they could be critical, they could be negative.

What kept you going and motivated?

A law had been broken. There was a fair pay act, it was passed in '63, signed by John F. Kennedy, which is 50 years old this year, that covered me and I was entitled to equal pay under the law. And that affected my retirement, my overtime, my social security, my 401k and everything. And it was not right. I just could not let it go. There was never a time I wanted to give up. Not one time. And people ask me today 'Would I do it again?' Absolutely.

It sounds like it has become more than just a personal struggle for you. You view it as a struggle for every American.

That's true. When that verdict came out with the Supreme Court against me, five to four, it was no longer about me. It turned in to being about my daughter, my granddaughter and all of the women that are out there working, and especially the young women coming out of college. And it affects men because if the women are not paid properly then it hurts the entire family. And it hurts the nation.

Besides traveling to the White House on a monthly basis, what aspect of your life has changed most since you gained national notoriety?

I'm invited all over the world to speak to various groups and share my story and my experiences and that's quite an honor for me.

What themes do you highlight when speaking at these engagements?

About how to protect yourself when starting out, how and why it's so critical to get the starting pay that you're entitled to in the beginning. Because if you start out behind, you can never catch up.

As someone from a small town in Alabama, how does it feel to be speaking on these national stages, like the Democratic National Convention, where you're reaching millions and millions of people?

It's very humbling, it really is. To know and to realize how far this journey has taken me. it really keeps my life in perspective.

I heard your story might be made into a movie. Which actress would you want to play you?

I talked to Reese Witherspoon at the White House, she grew up in Georgia, a southern girl, she played Sweet Home, Alabama, she could do my part. And she took an interest when I approached her. I said, 'I would love to see you with this part.'

What's the biggest piece of advice you would give to people facing discrimination in the workplace today?

If they know they're being discriminated against, they need to call the Equal Employment Commission and go in and talk to one of their representatives to see if they have a case. There's not an incentive to wait like the Supreme Court's five justices said in my case, because it's not a big payoff.

Describe the Lilly Ledbetter you were while you worked at Goodyear.

[I was] very enthusiastic about my job and very good at my job.

Describe the Lilly Ledbetter you are today.

I'm still a very enthusiastic person because I believe everyday should mean something in your life. And I'm dedicated to making a difference. In fact, I've told my pastor that when he closes my funeral, I want the last thing to be said, 'I made a difference.'

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