THE BLOG
12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Joe the Plumber Vs. Lilly Ledbetter

Supreme Injustice: Vote for More Ledbetter Decisions or Better Led Decisions

Why is Joe the Plumber the media darling and Lilly Ledbetter, today's real-life Rosie the Riveter, and maverick reformer Supreme Court advocate for working women, ignored by the press?

All the media -- print, broadcast, cable, hard news, tabloid, Internet -- was quick to create the latest in a line of celebritease in the regular guy guise of Joe the Plumber. He was mentioned more than 20 times in the last presidential debate. Barak Obama did cite Lilly Ledbetter and her Supreme Court case to ensure women earn "equal pay for equal work" and pledged to make it a priority. Have you seen her press coverage?

John McCain chose Sarah Palin to represent the working class. Palin's current net worth is more than $1 million dollars. Does she speak for women -- or to women? Is she Rosie, the Riveting Speaker, with the Rose-colored Glasses, or Rosie the Riveter, Working Woman?

Palin talks about "everyday Americans who are running our factories." Isn't that Lilly Ledbetter, the twenty-year veteran of a Goodyear Tire factory who was underpaid and denied retribution by the Supreme Court and the Senate?

McCain sought to connect with the working class and claim his moJoe with his new BFF and wing man. Joe the Plumber is now a key player in his campaign entourage. He is featured in every speech and in the media. Will Joe the Plumber be in the McCain kitchen cabinet?

Why has the media ignored Ledbetter, the real American working woman and advocate for equal pay? Why has the media glorified Joe as the spokesperson for the average working person? Early fact-checking revealed he isn't a licensed plumber and he isn't as flush as he claimed. His prospects for buying the two-man plumbing business he works for may, ineed, be a pipe dream, with no draining tax consequences. Joe now has an agent, is consulted on air about foreign policy by Fox News and compares with Bob the Builder for public awareness.

Who is Lilly Ledbetter you may well ask? Ledbetter is today's Rosie the Riveter, the World War II icon to represent working women, Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich wrapped in one brave maverick reformer advocate for women's "equal pay for equal work."

Briefly, Ledbetter worked at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Alabama for almost twenty years. She worked as an area manager from 1979 until she took early retirement in 1998, when the plant closing was announced. In 1996 she received a "Top Performer" award. Ledbetter was the only woman supervisor in her unit. She received an anonymous note revealing the higher pay of her colleagues. Throughout her career she had been paid less than younger, less experienced and more junior male workers for the same job. She was earning less than $4,000 a month -- 15% less than the lowest-paid male area manager and 40% less than the highest-paid area manager. With this "proof," she filed a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A jury found that Goodyear discriminated and awarded her back pay and punitive damages amounting to $3 million.

Goodyear appealed the case up to the Supreme Court and got a reversal of the jury verdict by one vote. On May 29, 2007, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. reversed 40 years of legal precedent on "equal pay for equal work."

Now victims of pay discrimination must file a lawsuit within 180 days of the first paycheck discrepancy, even if the victim is not aware until later. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, noted that the Opinion is "one that tossed aside precedent and logic."

Ledbetter received no back pay and no court costs. In retirement, she has become a dedicated, outspoken advocate for other women to earn "equal pay for equal work." I hope a film is made of her life story and she reaps the rewards. I see working women heroine actresses Charlise Theron, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep or Sally Field playing her role.

When Obama mentioned Ledbetter in the final debate, McCain muttered that it would create "a trial lawyers dream." He and opponents claim that trial lawyers could take advantage of women who allege discrimination. The EEOC reports discrimination charges filed by women in 2007 reached almost 25,000. Ledbetter was brave as the sole woman and filed her suit after taking early retirement. Most class action cases are filed by lawyers on a contingency basis. Certainly, they only accept a case with evidence of discrimination and they only collect if they win.

When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act on June 10, 1963, women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today white women earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men; African-American women earn 66 cents and Hispanic women earn less. In Europe women earn 16 percent less than men for equal work.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, color, religion and extended affirmative action to the hiring of women as well as minorities.

The House of Representatives passed the corrective Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Senate has stalled. McCain agrees with the Supreme Court decision. Palin concurs with McCain and the Supreme Court. Will Palin and the women senators who support the Supreme Court decision accordingly accept lower salaries in sympathy with real American working women?

Let's cut the lipshtick and bull and focus on the real issues that makeup legislation affecting all women and their families. For the first time in history, a majority of adult women are single, separated, widowed or divorced. Women are the head, or sole provider, of almost 13% of all households. More than 10 million single mothers live with children under 18.

Here's a shoutout to all working women and especially young women beginning their careers. According to the Supreme Court decision, and Senate support, you should ask to see the paychecks for all your coworkers the first day on a new job. You have 180 days to determine if your first paycheck is discriminatory. Or, like Ledbetter, you will be underpaid for the rest of your career with the company and in retirement. Ledbetter was instructed not to discuss salary with coworkers upon hiring. Companies have strict policies about salary secrecy and offenses could be cause for firing.

The reality for women who do not have lifetime appointments and public salaries like the Supreme Court justices and senators -- or access to a multimillion dollar family fortune -- is you are dependent on a paycheck. Lilly Ledbetter's lower salary throughout her career at Goodyear -- a misnomer -- predetermined her reduced 401(k), pension and Social Security in retirement. As women move up the career ladder, base salary is just a portion of the total executive pay package that may include stock options, travel and expense allowance, bonus, etc.

Tori Spelling ditched the "90210" spinoff when she learned that she would be earning less than her former castmates. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, seeks IRS exception from its nonprofit status to keep top salaries of the league's employees secret. Salary secrecy is management's great American tradition of doing business.

Women need income before worrying about paying income tax. I'm less concerned about the BlackBerry/Pinkberry voters. I care about the women for whom Goodwill hunting describes shopping for family necessities.

The media has focused on Ivy League-educated women who opt out of the workforce. I call this the "Ivy Leave" option and it is available to only a few women. Most women have to work to support their families or are forced back to work when confronted with the dreaded Ds: death, divorce, disease and downsizing (think Bare Stearns).

The next president may appoint up to three new Supreme Court justices. The appointment of life-tenured judges can become a president's and Congress' most consequential legacy. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices are 70 or older and justices serve on average 25 years. The 5-4 Ledbetter decision may be a precursor of how future legislation will impact working women and their families.

The Supreme Right to Shoes

When I speak around the country on "A Woman's Place in the 21st Century," young women tell me they don't vote because they don't see a connection between politics and their own lives. I respond, "How many of you own at least one pair of athletic shoes?" They all raise their hands.

I inform them that athletic shoes for women weren't manufactured until there was a mass market created by the Supreme Court 1972 Title IX ruling, requiring equality in education, including athletics.

Kathrine Switzer, as K. Switzer, crossed the finish line in the Boston Marathon in 1967. She had to order athletic shoes from abroad. Pioneer women runners wore men's or canvas shoes. Quite a feat!

The Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) finally allowed women to enter sanctioned marathons in 1971. Women were officially allowed to compete in Boston in 1972, and in the New York Marathon on an equal basis in 1973. Switzer won the New York race in 1974. A champion for women runners, Switzer was instrumental in having the first women's marathon in the 1984 Olympics.

Following the passage of Title IX, the number of sports available to college women had doubled by 1984. Joan Benoit admitted that she would not have won her way to victory in the 1984 inaugural women's marathon if she had not won a scholarship to North Carolina State under Title IX. Benoit set the world record in the Boston Marathon in 1983.

In 2007, almost 15 million women participated in running; more than 4 million females participated in races and 165,000 participated in marathons. In 2004, almost 140 million pairs of women's athletic shoes were sold in the US with sales figures of almost $5 billion. Today athletic shoes and clothing have become the uniform for even the most sedentary women. Sarah Palin is said to run three miles every other day.

Speaking of athletic shoes, I used to think high-top sneakers were ugly. That is until I fractured my ankle and had to wear them every day. I still appreciate the support they give me. I think of that when I'm evaluating the candidates for the national, state and local offices. Style vs. substance. Who will support me and all women?

Since the enactment of Title IX, opportunities for girls has increased by almost 1000 percent at the high school level. Today more than 3 million girls are participating in high school athletics.
College athletic scholarships for women were nonexistent before Title IX. Today more than 170,000 female student-athletes participate in intercollegiate athletics, up from 30,000 in 1972 before legislation was passed.

In 2006, $600 million in scholarships was awarded to female student-athletes in NCAA Division I colleges, including basketball (4,550 coeds), soccer (more than 6,000 coeds), softball (almost 5,000 coeds) and track and field (more than 7,000 coeds).

Ginger and Fed: Dancing with the Stars Wasn't Equal

Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. Only she had to do it backwards, in high heels, in a tight long dress, for lower salary. In her autobiography, Rogers said, "In my case, there's no question that the discrepancy in treatment and remuneration was due to my gender. When Fred Astaire made his demands to the front office, his requests were honored, while mine were attributed to 'greed' or 'ego.'" Plus, she had to spend more time in hair and makeup and costume fittings. Rogers had to negotiate hard to get her equitable paycheck. After much foot-dragging by the studio executives, she stood her ground and won a better contract and a percentage of the profits.

Carrie Bradshaw ("Sex and the City") cultivated an extensive shoe collection and never voted. More than 35 million eligible women did not vote in the 2004 election. Less than 47% of the women aged 18 to 29 voted in 2004. Nearly 20 million unmarried women did not vote in 2004. Women comprise the majority of all voters and the majority of swing and undecided voters. Compare how much time you spend shopping for shoes -- and how much time you spend shopping for your elected officials. Turn out. Don't tune out on Election Day.

Eleanor Roosevelt was 36 when she was allowed to vote for the first time. Remember her and Lilly Ledbetter and all the maverick reformer women and men who fought for your right to vote and fair pay and equality. Vote based on the candidates' agenda, not gender.

"Celebrate Women Every Day!" is the motivational message in my speeches on "A Woman's Place in the 21st Century," "A WOMAN'S BOOK OF DAYS Journal" and writings. Sarah Palin has reached milestones for women as the first woman governor of Alaska and the first VP candidate on the GOP ticket. She's shown American girls that they may grow up to run for VP and that men do make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Please contact your senators to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act and tell your friends.


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