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By Thomas Perry
DCMA Public Affairs
Defense Contract Management Agency team members welcomed Lilly Ledbetter as the agency’s 2022 Women’s Equality Day guest speaker Aug. 19.
Army Lt. Gen. David Bassett, DCMA’s director, opened the commemoration by thanking Ledbetter, a women’s rights activist whose 10-year battle against her former employer inspired the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Although the federal statute ensures equal pay for women, Bassett said it wasn’t always that way and praised Ledbetter for her fight for equal pay.
“We have to rely on people to change history, and (she helped) women get rights they so richly deserve,” he said. “I’m grateful to Mrs. Ledbetter for what she’s done for our nation.”
The story that led to her namesake law began when Ledbetter worked as a production supervisor at a tire plant in Alabama. She filed an equal-pay lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A jury initially found for Ledbetter and awarded her damages. An appeals court reversed the initial ruling, however. After the Supreme Court upheld the reversal, the case became a contested political issue in 2007 and led to the 2009 law.
“Even though it’s my story, it happens to be the tip of the iceberg in this country,” said Ledbetter. “It’s a rampant condition of the families across this great nation that women are underpaid and under desired, and this is not right, because we’re created equal. This is an American right to have equal pay for equal work.”
Ledbetter said she remembered watching President John F. Kennedy on her black and white TV when he signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. President Kennedy said it would provide women with their rightful pay they earned going into the future. Looking back, she thinks that the law wasn’t strictly enforced.
“Laws are good, but they must be enforced; and people must adhere to them and follow guidelines to make them work,” she said. “The law was passed, and that was great, because it offered a right for women to get equal pay for equal work.”
Prior to her position at the tire plant, she held previous jobs and felt confident in her abilities to perform professionally. Everything began well, as women were given additional opportunities, but she said the company actively discouraged employees from discussing pay. She believed that due to her company’s participation in government contracts they were following the law. Then she got an anonymous note at work sharing pay details of four employees, and she realized the company’s actions were unlawful.
“My wages had been cut. They were so low compared to my male counterparts,” said Ledbetter. “With the four names that were on that note, we each had the same job, just a different shift. I was floored when I saw that note. I was just devastated, humiliated. I was embarrassed. I wondered how many people in that factory knew every shift that I was there how little I was respected by the company in regards to my pay.”
After the 2007 ruling, members of Congress pushed to develop a fair-pay act to ensure better protection for employees. During this time, when her efforts and those of many others were ridiculed and questioned, she found solace in her public support.
“Other people, like every day American people, showed up every day to support me and help me make that journey to continue fighting for equal pay for equal work,” she said. “Because when that verdict came out in the Ledbetter case, it really closed the courtroom doors. It closed the courtroom doors. It made it almost impossible for an individual to be able to file a charge on discrimination, and that was not right. The Ledbetter bill actually opened the doors back to the courtroom.”
After President Barack Obama’s election, the first official piece of legislation he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January 2009.
“That was the greatest day to see that pen go across that bill,” said Ledbetter. “It meant so much. I didn’t get a dime, as it didn’t do anything for me except the prestige. As I told President Obama, that bill and that name on that bill calls me to want to do better and to do more to help young people and the generations working today because they need all the help they can get. It’s been a journey that I wouldn’t take anything for. It’s not been easy, but I love it, and I would do it again.”
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