If Joe the Plumber had his moment of fame allegedly representing the average working guy, Lily Ledbetter is going to go down in the history books as the woman who changed the lives of working women.
The U.S. House passed two related bills on Jan 9, 2009. The Lily Ledbetter Pay Restoration act would reverse a five to four 2007 Supreme Court decision against Ledbetter's charge of pay discrimination. Ledbetter had worked as a supervisor at a Goodyear plant for 20 years. One day she received a letter in the mail that told her she was being paid significantly less than the men who did the same job. She sued and won. Goodyear appealed to the Supreme Court, which turned her down because she had not filed her case within 180 days of experiencing discrimination.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg read the minority opinion from the court because she felt so strongly that this was a miscarriage of justice. She explained that it is unrealistic to expect women who are discriminated against to file cases immediately. In the real world, few people know their co-workers salaries, and "Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves..." Ginsberg said.
The first bill would give employees more time to file lawsuits in cases of job discrimination. The legislation is critical not only for female workers, but for all others who file discrimination suits because this court decision has been used to turn down hundreds of discrimination cases based on race, age and disability.
The vote in the House was 247 to 171, at first glance a healthy majority. But a closer look reveals that only three Republicans voted for the bill, a sobering reminder that the battle for pay equity is far from over. The National Association of Manufacturers opposed the bill because it would "open the floodgates to unwarranted litigation against employers at a time when businesses are struggling to retain and create jobs."
Haven't we heard that before? When, gentlemen, is the right time for equal pay for women? A good argument can be made that now is precisely the right time to enact equal pay for equal work for women when more women are the sole wage earners for their families.
A second bill, The Paycheck Fairness Act, would close loopholes that enable employers to circumvent liability when they pay women less than men for the same work. For example, under a 1963 law, an employer can discriminate if he can show the disparity is based on education or experience. He or she can also cite "market forces."
When, after all these years, women still earn only 77 cents on the dollar of what men earn, it is time for these two bills to become law. President Bush had threatened to veto them. President-elect Obama strongly supports Lily Ledbetter's cause--she was one of the featured speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
But its acceptance is not a done deal. The Senate defeated the Ledbetter bill in 2008. The lack of bi-partisan support in the House may be reflected in the Senate vote. It is time for all groups who have experienced discrimination to fight for these two bills so that the most basic principle of equality can become a reality for all Americans: equal pay for equal work.
This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.
Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.