Working for women

The Fair Pay Act is an important victory for women’s rights

BACK IN THE fall, in the hectic heyday of the presidential campaign, Michelle Obama came to the University to speak outside of Newcomb Hall to a crowd of students and townspeople alike. At nearly six feet tall and clad in the fashionable dresses for which she has been so acclaimed, she certainly cut an imposing figure and spoke with poise and direction. But while Michelle’s speech was moving and powerful, it was her guest, the petite Lilly Ledbetter, who made the greatest impression on me that day. Ledbetter traveled for several weeks with the Obama campaign, discussing her experiences as an employee at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, where she worked for twenty years before discovering that she was being receiving significantly smaller raises than her male colleagues.  Ledbetter took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in a 5-4 decision, the justices threw out her trial by ruling that she should have filed a suit within 180 days of the first time Goodyear paid her less than her coworkers.

On January 29th, President Obama signed the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” into U.S. law, rendering the Supreme Court’s argument invalid by stating that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing pay discrimination lawsuits begins anew with each new discriminatory paycheck.  

Watching Lilly Ledbetter speak outside of Newcomb — a thin, soft-spoken woman in her seventies whose passion for the issue imbued her voice with a resounding power — I was deeply moved by the struggles and victories of my gender.

I was lucky enough to be raised by two highly educated parents with very successful careers, who told me from the youngest age that I was capable of achieving anything that I wished to achieve.  By age 5, I wanted to be a novelist; by age 7, I dreamed of being the world’s first novelist-veterinarian-astronaut-President.  Even as a college kid, as my friends will tell you with a snort and an eye-roll, I’ve harbored dreams of law school, medical school, and a Rhodes Scholarship while changing my major from English to Chemistry to Psychology to English again.  In fact, until I saw Lilly Ledbetter speak, it had never occurred to me how not-very-far removed I am from the generations that couldn’t have been novelist-veterinarian-astronaut-Presidents, who made great strides for womankind just by showing up to work every day, and who fought ceaselessly against the male-dominated work world to demand fairness, justice, and equality.

Especially in today’s economy, as President Obama himself said, “equal pay is by no means just a women’s issue — it’s a family issue.” This bill isn’t just about Lilly Ledbetter herself.  It’s about the thousands of women across this country who, according to Obama’s speech, still make only 78 cents for each dollar that a man earns for the same work, many of whom are supporting not only themselves, but children, parents, and siblings as well. It also protects the rights of the many minority groups—African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, the elderly—who encounter discrimination in the workplace with dismaying frequency.  

I have written on feminism before, and on the assumption that I and many of my peers often erroneously make that we are living in a post-feminist, or even post-racist, world where equality has been achieved and any further struggle is just whining.  Yes, the world of today is, mostly, a good place for a young girl to grow up, watching women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice making real, powerful impacts on global affairs.  But let’s not forget that a mere forty years ago, a man would have been writing the column you’re reading right now.  Back then, the University only allowed women into two of its five schools: Education and Nursing.  

As we celebrate this victory for equal rights in the workplace, let’s not forget to give thanks to all the men and women who worked so hard to achieve professional equality.  Let’s not forget what a great step forward this law is for the thousands of people who face sexism, racism, and age discrimination in the workplace every day.  Let’s not forget to thank Lilly Ledbetter and the hundreds of others like her who have stood up for their rights in the face of enormous opposition.

Despite the passage of the law, Ledbetter’s case cannot be retried, and she will receive no compensation for the hundreds of thousands of dollars she was cheated out of during her time at Goodyear.  Nevertheless, she retains a positive attitude.  As she said on the campaign trail: “I never won so much having lost so much.”

Michelle Lamont is a Cavalier Daily  associate editor. She can be reached at m.lamont@cavalierdaily.com

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