Lilly Ledbetter: Great Teachers Critical in Fight for Gender Equality

At the recent 2013 NEA Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women, Lilly Ledbetter told the crowd, “There is so much to do, and so little time.” She should know. Four years after President Obama signed into law the  act that bears her name, Ledbetter continues the fights for fair pay for women, who still earn just 77 cents for every $1 earned by a man.

In 1998, after 19 years working as a night supervisor at a Goodyear tire factory,  Ledbetter found an anonymous note in her mailbox that revealed she was earning thousands of dollars less than the men doing the same job in the same Alabama plant. Over eight years, her case of pay discrimination made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Ledbetter should have filed her claim within 180 days of receiving her first unequal paycheck — even though she had no idea at that time that she was being shortchanged! But she didn’t stop fighting then, and in 2009 the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which states that the 180-day window resets with each paycheck, became the first law signed by President Obama.

At the NEA conference, Ledbetter  sat down with NEA Today to answer these questions:

Q: What does unequal pay have to do with education?

A: I talk to single mothers working two jobs every day, plus another job on the weekend. These women don’t have time to go to parent-teacher conferences and they don’t have time to participate in their children’s education. It’s not their fault. It’s America’s fault. These people need the support of people in Washington D.C. so that they don’t have to work all these jobs. We’ve got to do better in this country.

I also say unequal pay contributes to child obesity in this country. When you’re a mother working all those jobs, you don’t have time to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. The kids are scrounging for whatever is there in the cabinets, whatever is fast, and it’s not going to be the healthiest choice.

Q: Sometimes the issue of unequal pay seems like a women’s-only issue, but you say it’s not. Can you explain that?

A: I’m old enough to remember when the classified ads said women’s jobs and men’s jobs. But right now, in America, it takes two incomes to make it. Right now, today, in America, the family is dependent on the woman’s income. (Editor: In fact, in 40 percent of American households, women are the sole or primary earners.) When people call me to talk to me about their own case of pay discrimination, it’s often the husband on the phone saying, ‘What can we do?’ It’s not just a woman’s issue — it’s a family issue. I love to talk to men who are fired up, because it’s their wife, their mother, their sister, their daughter, and the woman across the street.

There used to be a saying that until mothers teach their sons to accept women, there never would be equality. But I look at educators and I think you have just as much or more influence. From your position, you can inspire women and girls to go into non-traditional jobs, and you can inspire young men to be accepting of those girls. And we can turn this world around.

Q: What else have you learned from your experience?

A: The main thing I’ve learned is it’s not so much what they do, it’s how you react to it. Keep an eye on them. Keep an eye on Washington. Keep an eye on what’s happening in your state. Don’t assume your neighbor is doing it.

Sticking together helps. When you stick together, you’ve got a bigger voice and a louder voice. We have to do this because its so critical for American families. When those news reporters ask me when I’m going to let it go, well… I tell them I can’t let it go, I can’t let it go.

Q: We hear your book, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay at Goodyear and Beyond is getting made into a movie. Who should play you?

A: Oh, I don’t care! Although I bet Meryl Streep would be good!