POLITICS
01/29/2016 02:09 pm ET

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Pushed For A Law To Make Sure Women Get Equal Pay

She called on Congress directly to change the law. Then they did.

President Barack Obama commemorated the 7th anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on Friday -- with the announcement of even more steps to reduce the pay gap between men and women.

It was a fitting tribute to the first measure Obama signed into law as president, which gave employees more time to sue their employers and claim discrimination -- an achievement that may not have been possible without Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ledbetter, an area manager at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Alabama, claimed discrimination when she sued after discovering she was being paid less than men in the same position. But the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter in 2007, saying that she had to bring the suit within 180 days of when she first started getting paid less, as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires.

President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, a measure that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsbu
MCT via Getty Images
President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, a measure that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had pushed for.

That's where Ginsburg came in. In a sharply worded dissent, she argued the majority had overlooked the way pay discrimination works.

"The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination," she wrote. "Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view."  Ginsburg added that employees might be hesitant to claim pay discrimination, especially if they hold a role more commonly occupied by another gender, because they don't want to cause a stir.

She called directly on Congress to amend Title VII and took the unusual step of reading her dissent out loud from the bench in an effort to draw attention to the issue. As The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin noted in a 2013 profile of Ginsburg, she also rewrote the dissent she read from the bench in language more accessible to the general public. The dramatics, Toobin wrote, gave the relatively unnoticed case national attention.

In 2009, Congress did amend the law, which now resets the clock for employees to sue after each individual paycheck. 

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