In Jacksonville, she’s just another lady in the grocery store checkout line, but throughout the United States of America she is a national celebrity.
Lilly Ledbetter graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1956. In 1979, Lilly was hired by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company where she worked at the company’s plant in Gadsden until 1998.
For most of those years, she worked as an area manager -- a position largely occupied by men. Initially, Ledbetter’s salary was in line with the salaries of men performing similar work.
Over time, however, this changed. By the end of 1997, Ledbetter was the only woman working as an area manager and the pay discrepancy between herself and her 15 male counterparts was astounding: Ledbetter was being paid only a fraction of what the lowest paid male area manager received.
In November of 1998, Ms. Ledbetter filed suit against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company claiming pay discrimination. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Court did not rule on the topic of pay discrimination, but rather that the statute of limitations had run out and Ms. Ledbetter’s case was therefore null and void.
In the 5-4 ruling in 2007, the Court held that discriminatory intent must have occurred within 180-days prior to the filing of the suit.
Therefore, Ms. Ledbetter could not file suit on the previous two decades of potential pay discrimination.
In 2007, Democratic members of Congress introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which stated that if a present act of discrimination pertains, prior acts outside of the 180-day statute of limitations for pay discrimination can be incorporated into the claim.
The bill became a huge issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign with Barack Obama supporting it and John McCain opposed. Ms. Ledbetter appeared in campaign ads for the Obama campaign and had a key speaking role at the Democratic National Convention.
In January of 2009, President Obama placed his signature on the first bill of his administration: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In February of 2012, Ledbetter released Grace and Grit--a memoir of her struggles for equal pay.
In 2012, Ledbetter returned as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention and in October of 2012 she appeared as a guest on the Colbert Report to promote her book.
Today, she is occasionally invited back to the White House to visit with the Presidential family, or to congressional districts to fundraise for candidates, or to law schools to speak at graduation. But when she’s not off being a national celebrity, she comes back home to her quaint, normal house in sleepy Jacksonville, Alabama.
Many people call Jacksonville State University “the Gem of the Hills” for its beauty and presence as a regional institution. However, I contend that the true “Gem” in these Alabama hills is just down the road from our campus and her name is Ms. Lilly Ledbetter.