Biography, Event, Politics, Women's History

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – A History of Equal Pay


“If I were a girl,” Mattie McIntosh writes in the January 1888 volume of Woman’s Work, “I would have an aim in life.”  So many ideas rush to mind when looking at this statement.  Out of all of them, the most prevalent is probably this question: Were girls really not supposed to have aims in the late nineteenth century?  It’s strange to think of a time when girls weren’t encouraged to seek out a lucrative career or a passion that would translate into one.  However, now that we’re in the position where girls have mostly equal consideration rights, there are still problems of sexism that arise in the workforce. The worst is that women aren’t paid as much as their male counterparts for equal work.

That probably sounds like one of those statistics we hear once and then sweep under the rug.  We might not even believe it.  Nonetheless, it’s worth pondering. When American women aren’t paid as much as American men, the rate of female poverty increases.  But women everywhere are bringing attention to this gap.  As women from Michigan, we are proud to report that the Michigan Partners Project is working to teach women about their economic rights, and to provide resources and support.  One of the aspects they are most focused on is remedying the fact that in Michigan, women only get 48 months of cash assistance when the national law states 60.  The injustice of unequal pay for women was recently brought to the country’s attention by Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear employee who noticed she was paid less than her male colleagues.  In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which says that employees have the opportunity to sue on account of pay discrimination and acquire reimbursement for it (Meyerowitz).  While Lilly Ledbetter might not be as famous as powerful female characters who share her double initials, like Lois Lane and Lana Lang (Superman’s empowered ladies), she’s going to be just as legendary.

Ledbetter follows a great tradition of women workers who insisted they be treated as economic equals to men.  The female workforce, which swelled by millions during World War I and World War II, brought the disparity between men and women’s pay to the forefront.  Replacing male workers in war manufacturing plants, women were struck by the fact that they were doing the exact same work as men, yet receiving less pay.  Individual states had been giving attention to women’s pay since Michigan and Montana passed equal pay laws in 1919, but these laws were often limited to specific industries, or they specified either the public or private sector but not both (Anonymous).  American women needed widespread wage protection at the federal level, and such changes were on the horizon.

The sweeping civil rights legislation of the 1960s addressed multiple types of discrimination, including women’s fight for pay parity.  The Equal Pay Act of 1963 focused on preventing wage discrimination for women, but it lacked a mechanism of enforcement. The much broader Civil Rights Act laid out the necessary mechanism the next year: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Title VII of the Act established the EEOC, which was intended to redress pay discrimination for any of the Act’s protected categories.  However, sex discrimination was not anticipated to be the Commission’s main focus: sex as a protected quality had been hastily thrown into the Act by an opponent, expecting that its inclusion would delay the Act’s passage (Fuentes).  A lawyer with the EEOC during its infancy, Sonia Pressman Fuentes, says dryly, “[T]he EEOC expected few [sex discrimination] complaints […, but w]ithin the first year of operation, 37% of the complaints filed alleged sex discrimination.” (ibid.)   Such numbers indicated a great need for anti-sex discrimination laws in the workplace, though true equality is still an ideal for which we continue to strive.

Ledbetter began her career with Goodyear Tire in 1979, and she was eventually promoted to become one of the first women in a management position. Her eight year battle started with a little note she found in the women’s bathroom at work. The note ranked her salary alongside the much higher salaries of three male tire-room managers, and Ledbetter was shocked to see that her male peers were making $14,000 and more per year than she was.  “I’d worried about being paid less than the men who were doing the same work I was,” Ledbetter records in her memoir, but she never had evidence to prove her suspicions (5). Armed with this alarming new information, Ledbetter took action and sued Goodyear for pay discrimination.

The federal court took Ledbetter’s side, and the jury ordered Goodyear to pay her three million dollars. When Goodyear failed to pay out, she took her case to the Supreme Court.  In a surprising reversal of the federal court’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled that she was outside of the 180-day statute of limitations when she reported the discrimination, despite the fact that the pay discrimination against Ledbetter had been going on for years while she was unaware of it. After this setback, Ledbetter stated, “I refused to take this unjust ruling lying down. I owed that much to myself but to all of America’s women and girls, who deserved a fighting chance” (Ledbetter 215). She took her fight to Congress, seeking legislation to change the law.

Her efforts paid off, and the resultant bill was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, “which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by reinstating that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing a pay discrimination lawsuit resets with each new discriminatory paycheck” (Ledbetter 219).  The bill effectively removed the time constraint on how long people are entitled to file a pay discrimination claim. Ironically, Ledbetter never received a dollar from Goodyear, where she was employed for nineteen years, despite winning her federal case and helping pass a major piece of legislation. Ultimately, Ledbetter says that it wasn’t about the money. Rather, it was about, “making a difference for the women who came after her” (146(c) March 2015


Lilly Ledbetter

Shalayna Mulrenan, Alison Osborn, and Blue Profitt (c) March 2015

Authors’ Note

As three students teaming up with the Michigan Partners Project, an organization dedicated to teaching women their rights about equal pay, we were excited to write about Lilly Ledbetter and what she has done for the cause. We hope you enjoy what we have put together …!


Shalayna Mulrenan, Alison Osborn, and Blue Profitt

Shalayna Mulrenan is a junior at the University of Michigan – Dearborn.  She is pursuing an education in communications  with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. She will be turning twenty-five this year and excited to continue her journey in college to obtain her bachelors degree.  She had tons of fun contributing to this blog, and she hopes everyone will enjoy this post.

Alison Osborn majors in Behavioral Sciences and minors in Women’s and Gender Studies at University of Michigan Dearborn.  A voracious reader and pop culture junkie, she loves female-driven and feminist media, be it books, television, web series, blogs, or more! She hopes to eventually work as a speech pathologist.

Blue Profitt is a sophomore at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, where she studies English and political science.  On the side, she is a contributing writer for and Legendary Women, Inc., where she writes on female characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Liz Lemon.  Her ultimate aspiration is to write for late night TV, and she would like to believe she is getting there.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “The Long, Long History of Equal Pay.” National Business Woman 36.7 (1957): 15-16. The Gerritsen Collection – Women’s History Online, 1543-1945. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.

Brady, Dorothy S. “Equal Pay for Women Workers.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 251, Women’s Opportunities and Responsibilities (May 1947): 53-60. JSTOR. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.

Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. “THE EEOC, NOW, AND ME: My Work in Women’s Rights.” Iris.34 (1996): 13. ProQuest. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.

Ledbetter, Lilly, and Lanier Scott Isolm. Grace And Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond. 1ST ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2012. Print.

Lilly Ledbetter and the Fight for Gender Equality. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio, 2009. ProQuest. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Meyerowitz, Steven A. “LL: Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Linda Lee, Lori Lemaris, and Lilly   Ledbetter.”  Employee Relations Law Journal.  Vol. 35. Issue 2. Autumn 2009. 8 February 2015. Web.






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