Oh, my goodness. Thank you, President Kaplan.
I had no idea I that was getting an award. I thought I just came to salute you graduates and the families. But thank you, so much, all of you, for the warm welcome here at Walden University with a proud and distinguished history. I’m delighted and feel privileged to be here and speak to all of you.
I am really here to congratulate you and to urge you to follow in the footsteps of those who selflessly laid the foundation for America. Give back to work for nonprofit organizations. You and I can make a difference in America.
Also I want to share my story to confirm that this is a great country—a land of opportunity. I have traveled to all areas of the United States and international[ly] to share my story and experiences for fighting for equal pay for equal work!
But, before I begin, I have a small confession to make. As pleased as I am to be here, a part of me wishes I wasn't.
The plan I had sketched out for my life was a simple one: I would work hard, raise a family, and play by the rules. I would save and build a nest egg. And when retirement came, I'd be able to simply settle down and enjoy the fruits of my labors. That's the way it's supposed to work, isn't it? I wasn't seeking fame, or looking to become a household name. I just wanted fairness and a good life.
That's not a lot to ask. Or so I thought. It should be pretty simple: You hold up your end of the bargain, your employers hold up theirs, and everybody wins. Right?
My name is Lilly Ledbetter and I held up my end of the bargain.
My employer, on the other hand, did not. And this afternoon I'd like to tell you a little bit about my story and why I continue the fight today. There are a lot of ups and downs, highs and lows; ultimately, the ending hasn't been written yet.
My story began in 1979, when Goodyear hired me as a supervisor in their production area of their Gadsden, Alabama. I wound up working there for 19 years, one of the few women to work there in a supervisory capacity.
It wasn't easy. The plant manager flat out said that women shouldn't be working in a tire factory because women just made trouble.
When I started at Goodyear, all the managers got the same pay. But then Goodyear switched to a new pay system based on performance. And that allowed people doing the same jobs to get paid differently. Goodyear kept what everyone got paid confidential. No one was supposed to know and we weren't allowed to ask.
Some years I got raises; some years I didn't. Some of the raises seemed pretty good, but I didn't know what the other people were getting and if mine was in line with theirs. But I did a good job; I even got a "Top Performance Award" in 1996.
I only started to get some hard evidence of what the men were making when someone anonymously left a note in my mailbox at work, showing what I got paid and what three other male managers were getting paid. As a result, I filed a complaint of discrimination with EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], and sued Goodyear in 1998.
At the end of my career, when I was earning $3,727 per month, the lowest-paid male was getting $4,286 per month for the same work, and he had a lot less experience than I did. My retirements were also affected, because they were based on my salary. So, that causes me to be a second-class citizen for the rest of my life.
In court, Goodyear acknowledged that it was paying me a lot less than it did the men doing the same work. But they said it was because I was a poor performer.
That wasn't true, and thanks to some courageous women colleagues who spoke on my behalf, the jury didn't buy it, either. At the end of the trial, the jury found that Goodyear had discriminated against me in violation of Title VII. The jury awarded me back pay and more than $3.2 million in punitive damages.
That was the high point of my story. But that's also when things started to go downhill.
Although in agreement that the jury's verdict was amply supported by the evidence at trial, the trial judge was forced to reduce the punitive damages award to $300,000 because of damages caps in Title VII—a mere 10 percent of what the jury had awarded me and hardly more than a slap on the wrist of a company the size of Goodyear. Goodyear, of course, appealed the verdict, and my case eventually reached the [U.S.] Supreme Court. On May 29, 2007, I hit a low point.
That's when the Supreme Court reversed the judgment and took every dollar away—even the two years’ back pay.
Justice [Samuel] Alito wrote the opinion. According to him, I should have complained every time I got a smaller raise than the men, even if I didn't know that the men were getting paid less—more than I was, and even though I had no way to prove that the decision was discrimination. The court ruled that once 180 days passed from the initial pay decision, the worker is stuck with unequal pay for equal work for the rest of her career and there is nothing illegal about it. The Supreme Court had said that if you don't figure things out right away, the company can treat you like a second-class citizen for the rest of your career. This decision completely reversed precedent, meaning that it wasn't just me who had to swallow the consequences of pay discrimination but every other working woman in America was being forced into the same corner.
Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg wrote an amazing dissent that hit the nail on the head. She said that the majority's rule just doesn't make sense in the real world. You can't expect people to go around asking their co-workers how much money they're making. …. You want to try to fit in and get along—you don’t want to make waves. But the bottom line was that every paycheck I received, I got less than what I was entitled to under the law.
That was wrong, not to mention illegal, but the Supreme Court disagreed.
I won't lie to you; I was pretty devastated by the court's decision. In one fell swoop, I lost my case and became the poster child for unequal pay for equal work. But instead of taking it quietly, I decided to fight back. I refused to take this unjust ruling lying down. I owed that much not just to myself, but to my daughter and my granddaughter, not to mention all of America's women and girls who deserved a fighting chance. And I was surrounded by good friends and organizations who were ready to stand with me every step of the way.
The first battle was to correct the Supreme Court's terrible ruling. Pay-equity stalwarts in Congress immediately got to work on legislation that would do just that. And so began an 18-month journey to pass a bill.
I testified twice before the House [of Representatives] and twice before the Senate.
I met with members of Congress, sent letters and emails, made phone calls, held briefings and press conferences, and rallied millions of people across the country for the cause equal pay for equal work.
It wasn't easy at first. The Ledbetter Bill passed the House in the 110th Congress, but we didn't have the numbers in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. However, the 2008 elections changed the landscape.
I never let up—I carried the message to the presidential transition team and worked with legislators even before the new Congress was sworn in. By the time the 111th Congress convened and President Obama took the oath of office, all the stars had finally aligned.
Jan. 29, 2009, was one of the most memorable days of my life. Walking into the East Room of the White House with President Obama for the signing ceremony was such a thrilling moment for me. Looking out into the audience, I was not surprised to see so many supporters of the Lilly Ledbetter Bill.
As President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, I felt so many emotions. I was excited to be present for such an historical moment. I was happy that all the hard work had finally paid off. But most of all, I felt incredibly grateful to be surrounded by people who care so much; not only about me, but for all the women and girls for whom that stroke of the pen would mean so much more than simply a signature.
Truth be told, though, I didn't feel completely satisfied that day, and I don't feel totally fulfilled now. The new law is important, but only brought us to where we'd been the day before the Supreme Court issued its ruling. Women continue to face a persistent wage gap that is not closing nearly fast enough. There are still loopholes in existing laws large enough for employers to drive a truck through. So, while I am thrilled with how far we've come, I am equally certain our work is not yet done, a point I made at the White House that day with [the first lady,] Mrs. Obama.
Ladies and gentlemen, our story is not finished. But the next chapter already has a name. It's called Paycheck Fairness Act.
The Paycheck Fairness Act is the next logical step to combat pay discrimination. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Chris Dodd, is a critical and comprehensive update to the 45-year-old Equal Pay Act that brings the equal pay law in line with other civil rights laws.
From my perspective, one of the most important provisions of the bill would prohibit retaliation against workers who ask about employers' wage practices or disclose their own wages to co-workers. The provision would have been particularly helpful to me, because Goodyear prohibited me and my colleagues from sharing our wages [information with each other]. This policy delayed my discovery of the pay inequities between me and my male counterparts by literally decades.
President Obama would sign this bill into law as well—after all, he was a co-sponsor himself just last year. So now it's up to the Senate. If the Senate follows through, this Congress will truly be remembered for making an historic commitment to pay equity. And as for that wage gap, its days are numbered.
Earlier in my speech, I told you that a part of me wished I wasn't here. When I set out on my career in 1979, it wasn't part of my grand plan to some day have my name on a Supreme Court case or an act of Congress. I simply wanted to work hard and support my family. The rest, I believed, would take care of itself.
Clearly, fate had other plans for this Alabama girl. After all, I started out as a supervisor at a tire plant. Thirty years later, I've been a litigant, an advocate, a lobbyist, an author, and a public speaker. Sometimes, life throws us curveballs. We may not ask for them, we may not have even expected them, but we still have to deal with them.
After everything that's happened to me, I've come to realize that the true test of a person is not so much what happens to us, but how we react to it. When we see an injustice, do we sit and do nothing, or do we fight back? When we experience failure, do we passively accept it, or do we learn from it and do better the next time? When we get knocked down, do we stay down, or do we get back up? Each of us, every day, breaks through barriers for women and girls simply because we choose to believe the future can be better.
I've tried to be a fighter. It's not easy, but I have to do what is right.
Thank you for having me here today. When it's all said and done, there's no place else I'd rather be. Thank you. God bless you.