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Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt

Posted January 12, 2009 | 11:59 AM (EST)

Lilly Ledbetter's Courageous Acts Pump Up Your Pocketbook


Hey, Women: Want to earn a cool half million?

That's about what the average woman loses over a career lifetime due to gender inequities in pay for the same jobs as men.

So click here to Speak Up and demand the Senate pass two crucial pieces of legislation so that Barack Obama can sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, as he has said he would do. In a historic vote, the House of Representatives on Friday passed both bills by substantial margins, largely along party lines. A Senate vote could come as early as this week.

No, these bills aren't another financial bailout for ailing industries that don't deserve them. They're not a get-rich-quick scheme from late night television infomercial-land. Nor are they part of the badly needed but very expensive stimulus package -- but they should be. Here's why:

* Women may lose $434,000 in income, on average, due to the career wage gap.

* Women at all education levels lose significant amounts of income due to the career wage gap, but women with a college degree or higher lose $713,000 over a 40-year period versus a $270,000 loss for women who did not finish high school.

* Women in all occupations suffer from the career wage gap.

* The gap exceeds $300,000 in 15 states, $400,000 in 22 states, and $500,000 in 11 states.

These shocking findings come from the Center for American Progress study, "Lifetime Losses: The Career Wage Gap", which analyzed the 40-year impact of the gender wage gap in all 50 states, using 10-year age groups of women and men aged 25-64.

If you're an unmarried woman, the disparity is even greater. While women overall earn 78 cents to a man's dollar, unmarried women earn just 56 cents, according to Women's Voices, Women Vote. No surprise then that unmarried women are more likely to file for bankruptcy, live in poverty along with their children, and be hurt more by our current economic crisis.

Why are two pieces of legislation needed?

Lisa M. Maatz, American Association of University Women's director of public policy and government relations, explains: "The tandem of both bills is critical, because the Ledbetter bill restores lost ground, while the Paycheck Fairness Act actually gives more teeth to the law and will provide better technical assistance and incentives to employers to follow the law in the first place."

AAUW has mounted a "Keep the Change" campaign, said Executive Director Linda D. Hallman, because the paltry 1 cent (from 77 to 78 cents on the dollar earned by men) increase from 2006 to 2007 is "chump change, not real change."

Some Republicans argued that the legislation would be an earmark for trial lawyers. But here's what the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay bill's namesake says about why it's needed, in a letter she wrote to Congress:

Thirty years ago, Goodyear hired me to work as supervisor in their tire plant in Gadsden, AL. I sometimes wondered how my pay compared to my colleagues, but there was no way to know for sure because pay levels were kept strictly confidential.

Thanks to an anonymous tip I received shortly before my retirement, I finally got some hard evidence of real pay discrimination. I filed a complaint without delay, and at the trial, the jury found that Goodyear had discriminated against me in violation of Title VII. The jury awarded me more than $3 million in back pay and punitive damages.

Unfortunately, that good moment didn't last long. First, because of damages caps in Title VII, the trial judge was forced to reduce that award to $300,000 -- a mere ten percent of what the jury had awarded me and hardly more than a slap on the wrist to a company the size of Goodyear.

Then, in 2007, my case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a disappointing 5-4 ruling, the justices took away the entire award, including the back pay. The Court said I should have complained every time I got a smaller raise than the men, even if I didn't know what the men were getting paid and even if I had no way to prove the decision was discriminatory.

Ledbetter still didn't give up. She says that now she's fighting for all the other women and girls who deserve equal pay for equal work.

It's powerfully symbolic that the first two bills passed by the 111th Congress concerned fair pay for women. Women held the key to the 2008 elections, a fact not unnoticed in Washington's "art of the possible" culture, to quote the late great Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. The current Speaker, Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times, "This Congress has heard the message of change in the election."

These bills clearly represent a stiletto boot on George W. Bush's behind as he exits: he had promised to veto the legislation had it reached his desk. Lilly Ledbetter and the large coalition of women's organizations that worked diligently, building the support for paycheck fairness through the difficult Bush years, hope Obama's first act will be to sign these bills.

In the department of courageous acts, it's always up to voters to make easy for politicians to do the right thing, and difficult for them not to.

By her courage to act, Ledbetter ignited the movement for paycheck fairness that propelled both bills to victory.

So what are you waiting for, Ladies? Act now. You have a half-million at stake. Send your message to your Senators now.

And be sure to cc President-Elect Obama.


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