Equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter

The author of Grace and Grit, whose fight to gain equal pay for women in the workplace led to landmark legislation, recounts her poor upbringing in rural Alabama and discusses her years working at Goodyear.

Namesake of the fair pay legislation signed by President Obama in 2009, Lilly Ledbetter is proof that one person can make a difference. After nearly two decades of suffering through the nightmare of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the Alabama Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., she discovered that she was earning far less than men in her position. Her subsequent legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; and, even though she lost the case on a technicality, she continued advocating for pay equity. For the first time, Ledbetter tells her story in the book Grace and Grit.


Tavis: If there are times when you think one person in our world cannot make a difference, consider then Lilly Ledbetter. Born into poverty in a small Alabama town, she picked cotton to help support her family household, a home with no running water or electricity.

In 1979 she went to work for Goodyear in hopes of building a path to the middle class, but her experiences at Goodyear turned into a nightmare with constant sexual harassment, low pay and discrimination.

In 2003, she won a landmark case against Goodyear only to see that decision overturned by an appeals court, a deflating decision reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Undaunted, Lilly Ledbetter didn’t give up. For two years, she traveled the hall of Congress telling her story to anyone who would listen, finally convincing enough members of Congress to approve the landmark equal pay legislation that, of course, bears her name.

In January of 2009, the very bill Barack Obama signed after being inaugurated President was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act and the new book about her truly remarkable journey is called “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.”

I am honored tonight to have join us from New York, Lilly Ledbetter. Ms. Ledbetter, an honor to have you on this program.

Lilly Ledbetter: Thank you, Tavis. I’m delighted to be here.

Tavis: Let me start by asking the first thing that jumped out at me when I got a chance to go through the book and that is, for all the respect and adoration that I and so many others have for you and what you did, why would you stay in a company almost 20 years that treated you so horribly?

Ledbetter: Well, it was a good job and I was good at my job. I enjoyed it and I felt like I was being a trailblazer for those women and the other minorities who would come after me. I just felt like that I would be making a difference.

At the same time, I thought I was earning good pay. I thought they were treating me fairly and, to my shock later on, I found out they were not. But I did enjoy my work and it was a good job for a woman.

Tavis: What exactly were you doing at Goodyear, for those who don’t know the intricacies of your story?

Ledbetter: The Goodyear plant that I hired in was a tire production plant and I wanted to be a part of the radial division and that’s where I was assigned. I was the supervisor, later an area manager, over the production area where we produced either the components or the tires or processed them.

Tavis: I love the town you were born in, Possum Trot, Alabama. I just wanted to say that on TV. Possum Trot, Alabama is the small town that you were born in.

But take me back to the beginning and tell me about where you were born, about your surroundings and what it was that made you work so hard to get on the line at Goodyear, and I think that’s connected to how you were born and how you were raised.

Ledbetter: Probably so. I was born in one of the poorest rural counties of Alabama and the little areas was known as Possum Trot. Everybody there pretty much was in the same boat, so to speak. We were all very poor.

We lived in a two-room house, no running water, no electricity, very little comforts of life. We raised our food and I had to pick cotton on the farm in the fall and I had to chop cotton in the spring to earn extra money for the family to help get necessary items for school. It was just a hard, hard life.

I was encouraged to get a good education, but one of those lessons which I learned as a young person picking that cotton and chopping in the spring and fall was to give a good day’s work for a good day’s pay.

I knew if I didn’t get the cotton in my sack to be weighed up at the end of the day, I wouldn’t get paid very much and I would be in trouble too.

Tavis: Tell me about your family in that two-bedroom house.

Ledbetter: My family consisted of my father and mother and I was an only child, but my father’s mother came – my grandmother – came to live with us because her husband had died and she didn’t have anywhere else to live, so she lived with us and that was the four of us in a two-room house.

Tavis: Yeah, I said two-bedroom. I meant two-room house. There is a difference.

Ledbetter: Yeah, it’s two-room. There’s a big difference [laugh].

Tavis: I saw that look on your face. You said, no, Negro, I did not say two bedrooms, I said two rooms. I take the correction and I got it [laugh].

Let me ask you how long it was before you ever saw running water in a house and when you saw electricity. At what age were you then?

Ledbetter: I was in the third grade. My parents bought three acres from my mother’s father and they built a four-room house. We actually moved up in the world. We had four rooms and indoor plumbing. Had a bathroom and a little back porch and then we had a big porch on the front of the house that went all the way across.

It was screened and we enjoyed that, but we really went up a little bit in the world. We had electricity and running water and we also had indoor plumbing, so that was really a great change in our lives.

Tavis: You eventually made your way to Goodyear and I’ll come to that in just a second. But you worked some other jobs along the way. What else were you doing employment-wise before you actually made it to Goodyear?

Ledbetter: Before I got to Goodyear, I was a district manager for H&R Block in the Anniston area of Alabama managing 16 locations, 16 different locations, either satellite or company-owned offices.

Prior to that, I was assistant to the Financial Aid Director at Jacksonville State University making awards to young people to stay in college and help them get a college degree.

Tavis: Tell me about how you fought to work at Goodyear, how that came to be.

Ledbetter: Well, they had built the Gadsden plant in 1929. It was one of the oldest factories that Goodyear owned, but they built the radial division in 1976 and I wanted to be a part of that because I knew that radial tires was the way of the future and I liked production work and I wanted to be in management.

So I interviewed over several months and made the cut and was hired February 5, 1979 on the Squadron which is the management training program. There were five of us on that training program and I wanted to be assigned to the radial division.

So I talked to everyone that I could possibly get into their office about that and I did get into the radial division. But in my almost 20 years of employment, I worked in every division of that factory in Gadsden except shipping.

Tavis: How long were you at Goodyear before the sexual harassment started and what form of sexual harassment are we talking about when they started messing with you?

Ledbetter: Well, the first evaluation that I ever got, the department foreman I had told me that, if I would meet him at the local motel, that I could be rated number one. But if I didn’t, I’d probably be at the bottom of the list.

It caught me off-guard. I really had gotten a little bit flustered. I didn’t know how to respond. I could not afford to jeopardize my job, so I just excused myself and left his office.

The next day I went in and asked if I could finish that meeting and he said, “No, your part is finished. You’re at the bottom of the list and that’s it.”

That’s basically when a lot of my troubles started, with that, and then it sort of progressed on for a while and then I was moved into another area away from my area manager’s job with this man running tire trials and it was a constant sexual harassment from the time I got in at the beginning of the shift to the end.

It was finally down to “If you don’t go to bed with me, you won’t have a job next week.” I saw college tuition bills, mortgage payments, car payments, all the household expenses coming due and those bills flying in and I could not afford to lose my job.

So that’s when I asked for help from the H.R. department and they started an investigation and it still didn’t look good from the way they took it. So I called the Equal Employment Commission and filed a charge.

Tavis: Through all the drama, you eventually became a manager. I mean, you worked your way up. There’s a story that you tell in this book, you know, just one example of the way you were talked to and the way you were treated not just as any employee, but as a supervisor.

There’s a story you tell in the book of a guy who told you one day – and this is PBS. I got to clean this up a little bit for family television [laugh] – but he basically said to you, “I take orders from one B at home, I’m not gonna take orders from another B at work.” You recall writing that in the book, obviously.

Ledbetter: That’s true, that’s exactly right. You know, that particular employee had a very good job. He’d been there a long time and he signed off that job. He took the first job possible to get away from me and he did, he left, he had to go work somewhere that he could work for a man.

But most of the men later, they learned to respect me and it worked out a little better, but he did, he signed off, he did, he sure did.

Tavis: During all this time, how did you sustain your hope? How did you go to work every day and not feel like your very humanity was under attack? I go back to the beginning of this conversation how you endured this every day?

Ledbetter: Well, I believed that, going back to that rural section that I was born and reared in, if you do right and you persevere and your ethics is where they should be and you treat your fellow person, worker, and your workers with you right, it will work out.

You know, I go back to those old westerns that I used to attend in the movies as a child. That cowboy in that white hat always came out on the end he won because he was right. He’d get beat up and shot at and all that, but he would always come out a win.

I felt like and I knew what I was capable of doing and I felt like that, if I continued and proved my capabilities and held my head up, it would come out and they would recognize what I could do and what I was capable of doing and be appreciated.

Tavis: When the issues that you were confronting eventually turned into a case, that is to say, when all this became litigious, when litigation came into the picture, how did it feel for you to have the company that you were so desperate to work for, that you fought to get into this company and fought to prove yourself, how did it feel when that company was fighting you in court?

Ledbetter: It didn’t feel very good. In fact, it didn’t feel good the last few months that I was there as an employee. The retaliation and people ignored me and won’t talk to you, won’t speak to you, won’t share information.

It’s really devastating and it really is bad for your personal morale too. You feel like you’ve lost your dignity, you’ve lost your respect and you really don’t know which way to turn.

It’s really a devastating feeling for an employee and that’s when I went to the Equal Employment Commission. I was so fortunate that I got an interviewer that would drag out of me all of the answers which she needed that really helped me in the long run.

In fact, my attorney told her later what an outstanding job she had done to get all of that information because I was so devastated and humiliated to have to go into that office and say that I’m a manager at this large corporation down in Gadsden, but they don’t treat me right. It sounds like I’m a whiner or just a complainer and that was not who I was.

Tavis: I assume there were other women in the workplace. One, how were they treated by some of these men and how did these women treat you?

Ledbetter: The other women that were there was treated basically the same. In fact, I was so fortunate. There were two women who testified on my behalf at trial and that was what really made the jury sit up and really take notice when they heard their stories.

But they were not treated well either because one of them had 22 years service and finally just took it as long as she could. She sold her retirement and her service and left Goodyear and was a supervisor at Honda when she came to testify for me.

The other lady had been promoted into an area manager’s job, but when she asked about her raise, they said, “We’re not giving it to you.” She worked a few more days and they still wouldn’t give her her raise, the difference in being a secretary to being an area manager, so she went back to her day shift job of being a secretary.

Tavis: There’s a wonderful story in the book. I shouldn’t say wonderful story. It’s the wrong way to put it, but it’s arresting.

It’s arresting when you read the day that a note was handed to you and, as I understand it from reading your book, you still don’t know where that note came from, unless something has changed since you published the book.

But somebody had a note that got delivered to you and on the note was written some salaries, and this is how it came to your attention that you were being maltreated, for lack of a better word, when it came to your pay. So take me back to that day and how that note found its way to you.

Ledbetter: That note was in my mail at work. I had a little slot. Each one of us did at work. And if we had any correspondence, it was always put in that little mail slot.

I got to work and there was that note. Had my name and the three men and the four of us had the exact same job, just a different shift, just the same operation. I was being paid 40 percent less than either one of them.

The salaries that was written on that paper was only the base salary. I had been shortchanged in overtime and also it suddenly hit me about my retirement, my 401k, my contributory retirement and my social security all was based on that.

I was just sick, devastated, and I just couldn’t understand how I would ever make it out on the floor to do and get through a 12-hour shift. But I continued to try to muster my feelings up and finally decided I had to do it.

I couldn’t leave, I can’t afford to quit, and I picked up my clipboard and I went to the floor and did my shift. But when I got home, I told my husband the next morning that I have to file a charge with the Equal Employment Commission unless you object.

I said, “I will tell you now, if I start it, we will be in this eight years.” It actually took me nine years from that 1998 time to when I got my final verdict.

Tavis: In moments like these, I say all the time that the three most important things in my life, I call the three F’s: faith, family and friends. Those are the things really that mean the most to me, my faith, my family and my friends, and I suspect that in a moment like the crisis you endured, you had to call on all three of those.

But tell me about your family. We talked earlier about how you grew up. But in these moments, you need your husband, your need your kids, you need your friends. How did your family and friends respond to you when you started this Herculean effort, this battle to take on a major, major company like Goodyear?

Ledbetter: Well, my husband said, “What time you want to leave?” and he drove me to Birmingham which was 75 miles from where I lived to file the charge. My family’s supported me from the time I started.

I had a son who now he’s 50, my daughter is 53 and I have grandsons. I have a son-in-law and I have a daughter-in-law and they all supported me and they were behind me.

Then I had a strong faith. I have a strong religious faith which you need because you have to have something to sustain you too along with your family because even the family occasionally may doubt we’re doing what we should be doing.

But you have to have those things and, the person themselves, they have to be really, really strong because you’re criticized, it’s your fault, you don’t get many compliments from other people, they don’t understand, they think you’re causing trouble and it’s not good for their job career, especially if they work for Goodyear where I worked, to support me.

But there were a lot of people who would walk up and just lay their hand on my shoulder and give me a smile and not say a word. But I knew they were behind me, but they couldn’t do anything because their jobs and retirements was in jeopardy as well.

Tavis: My grandmother, Lilly, was born down south as well in Mississippi. For that matter, I was born in Mississippi too, so I’m a southerner too by birth.

My grandmother always said to me – we called her Big Mama – she would say to me, “Tavis, once a task you have first begun, never finish until it is done. Be the work great or small, do it well or at all.” That was her way of telling me don’t ever start nothing that you don’t finish.

You mentioned a moment that there are folk who doubted. Sometimes family, sometimes friends doubt whether or not you’re doing the right thing. The question is, did Lilly ever doubt that she was doing the right thing once she filed this case?

Ledbetter: No, no. In fact, occasionally when I’d be up at night – I was a 20-year night shifter, so a lot of times even after I was not working, I’d be up at night. My husband would get up and he’d say, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I’d say, “No, but I just know it’s the right thing to do and I have to do it.”

I just knew from day one and, after I got the attorney and after I heard from the Equal Employment’s investigation, they had said, “You’ve got one of the best cases that we’ve ever seen,” the attorney and his firm that took case were pro bono and they knew I had a good case. They knew the law was on Lilly Ledbetter’s side and they knew that we should win that case.

But, you know, the fact is that sometimes you get up to the Supreme Court and you depend on those Justices to interpret and follow that law that has been put in the law books, but they don’t always do that.

Those five Justices changed the law when they made that ruling and our goal was to change it back. So the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act puts the law back to prior, to what it was, in the ruling in my case.

Tavis: When Lilly Ledbetter references the Supreme Court and how they let her down, let women down in this country, with their decision, for those who know a bit about the story and, if not, you read it in her new book, “Grace and Grit,” but she initially won a case, was awarded $3 million dollars.

That case got overturned by a federal appeals court. It made its way up to the U.S. Supreme and the Supreme Court, as you just heard her say, again didn’t do the right thing in this instance.

But I want to put up a quote from a woman sitting on the Supreme Court at that time who’s still there, for that matter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a dissent in the Ledbetter case and here’s what she had to say. “In our view, this court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”

Pretty straightforward, right to the point, Lilly, but at least there was some folk on that court who did understand what you were trying to do.

Ledbetter: That’s right, and you know what? With her dissent, I’ve had many calls from all over the United States. She was right on, and what Justice Alito said in the opinion, it didn’t make sense.

You know, he said my problem wasn’t that I was not discriminated against, but it was because I did not file a charge the first time I got that discriminatory paycheck even though I didn’t know it.

I mean, that doesn’t make sense. That’s not what the law was, but Justice Ginsburg hit the nail on the head.

Tavis: Yeah, that was pretty crazy, I think, with all due respect to Justice Alito who I hope I never go in front of because I just called him crazy on TV [laugh]. But I thought that decision was pretty silly. I mean, how can you miss the statute of limitations about something that you didn’t even know?

But I digress on that point. You went to work in the halls of Congress, you got Congress to pass this legislation and Barack Obama signed it as his first piece of legislation after being elected.

How did you feel that day standing next to the President of the United States signing legislation for all women that bears your name?

Ledbetter: That was unreal. I’ll tell you, that feeling that I had that went through my body and my mind down to my heart just thinking about what that signature would mean to all the working families and all of those women and the men that was there that day for that bill signing.

They were so elated because they had not been to that White House in eight years and they were thrilled to be there.

It was such a glorious day. I just miss that my husband wasn’t there because, you know, I lost him in December of ’08 just prior to this. But he always knew that it would pass and he said it will become law and he supported me right up until his death.

That’s another thing. Life goes on and people have to deal with all those curveballs you get and we had some bad ones. He developed cancer and was sick, but he still supported me and he encouraged me to go to Washington and he’d tell me, “Now you go on and you’ll be back in a day,” and that’s what we did.

But he supported me and we believed that this was right and it had to be done. It had to be done for all of those people who are working and will be following in my footsteps for the rest of their lives.

Tavis: And I am glad you did it. The book is called “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.” It is a harrowing, it is a gripping, but ultimately inspiring story of a courageous woman named Lilly Ledbetter.

Ms. Ledbetter, I’m honored, as I said earlier, to have you on this program. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Ledbetter: Thank you, and I’m honored to be here.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

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Last modified: March 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm