Let It Go? Why Lilly Ledbetter Said No

Audio Description

Lilly Ledbetter made a fateful decision to challenge pay equity–and women everywhere have benefitted from it. This Women's History Month, she tells her incredible story firsthand.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

 Welcome to Women and Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein. And this show aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth.

Hello, I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein Private Wealth and founder of our Women and Wealth Institute here at Bernstein. I want to welcome you along with my co-head of the Women and Wealth Institute, Kim Davis, to our conversation with the truly impressive and amazingly tenacious Lilly Ledbetter.

We have Lilly to thank for the passing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. Before we dive further into who Lilly is, I just want to take a moment to address the why. Why did Kim and I think it was so important to have this conversation with Lilly? To thank her and honor her for her achievements and really hear her story.

Well, it comes down to what we like to call “minding the gap.” What do we mean by that? Well, unfortunately, when women are growing up, there's a financial literacy gap. Studies have shown that families actually talk less to girls about money early in their childhood than to boys, and there's a financial literacy gap, generally speaking, in terms of our education.

Then unfortunately, when women start working and throughout their careers, there is still a pay gap today when they try to get credit for a big purchase or to start a business. There's a funding gap. There's a lending gap down the road. Ultimately, they face a retirement savings gap, which often results from that gap that starts early in childhood with women maybe not being as focused on investing from day one.

So, when you add up. All of those gaps, it amounts to a real financial challenge. So, helping women identify and tackle that challenge is what makes Kim and I tick in terms of one of the reasons why we have the Bernstein Women and Wealth Institute. Now, that's challenging news, but what's the good news?

Well, when it comes to the pay gap, There's been progress. Now, overall, women are still paid less than men, and the pay gap does worsen with age, but things have gotten better. The hashtag and theme for International Women's Day this year is embrace equity, so we have to keep ongoing, but we clearly would be nowhere today without Lilly's grit and determination.

She took this challenge head on. She made a difference for women everywhere. It is such an honor and privilege for Kim and I to share this platform with her. So Lilly, thank you so much for joining us today and for all of your efforts. On behalf of all of us.

Thank you for having me.

So, we're gonna go to a short clip that really tees up your story a bit and provides more background. We'll play it for you.

I grew up in one of the poorest counties of Alabama. I had the chopped cotton in the spring for my grandfather. Picking that cotton when I was a child taught me that you give a good day's work for good day's pay. I was hired with Goodyear February 5th, 1979. I go into work one evening and I look in my mail and here's this note.

It has four names and it was the three men and myself, we had had the same job, the lowest paid one. He had less education, less training, was younger. He was already making 600 plus more a month than I was. Goodyear paid me unfairly for 17 years, and my family needed that money. The easy thing to do was let it go, but that's not who I am.

And I told my husband, I have to file a charge in Birmingham, Alabama. And I will tell you upfront if I do, I'll be in it at least eight years. He said, what time do you want to leave, Lilly Ledbetter?

She worked 19 years as a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant, but at the end of her career says she discovered she was paid far less than men doing the same job.

Ledbetter sued, but the US Supreme Court threw out her case saying she filed her lawsuit too late. All right, well, let's get started. What an amazing story. So I wanna rewind in time and really go through this whole experience in detail across your career and how we got to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.

So you tell the story of being born in house with no running water. No electricity in a town called Possum Trot, Alabama. And in 1979, you were one of the first women ever hired at the management level at the local Goodyear Tire Factory. So tell us a little bit more about getting to Goodyear and really what do you think they saw in you?

I was born so long ago and grew up in such a poor county of Alabama, but I knew I had ambitions to go farther, and doors was opening a little bit for women and minorities during that time. So I, my goal was to do better and I started getting good jobs after, uh, my education and sometimes I worked two full-time jobs.

And then Goodyear and Gaton, Alabama built the radio division and I wanted a job with them and I knew that was the way of the future. I was interviewed, voted on and hired February 5th, 1979. One of a few women. There was two women on this training program I was on, but she didn't last.

Well, Lily, you know, you spent 19 years at Goodyear, but unfortunately during that time you faced gender prejudice and sexual harassment, but you pressed on believing that eventually things could get better. Until you received that famous anonymous note, you were coming up on retirement, and now you learned that you were being paid 40% less than your male counterparts, thousands less per year than men in your same position.

Did you ever find out who left you that note? No, I did not. And actually if, if I had a suspicion, uh, I would keep it to myself because it wouldn't even be safe due to retaliation for a person, even if they were retired. But I knew when I saw the amount mine was to the dollar, it was exact. So I knew that the guys was also, and I was just so embarrassed, humiliated, to tell you the truth because we got overtime pay along with our additional hours, and that made a lot of difference in our pay. But the first thing I thought about was how much and how hard it'd been on my family. To do without and make things come together on less money than I have really basically earned under the law.

Well, you're so right about the compound effect to be paid significantly less for doing the same job when your family was depending on that money. But you mentioned something important. Somebody took the risk. Sent you that note. What do you think motivated them to do that?

They knew that I was a hard worker.

I was dependable. I did a good job. And two, when I, I got that note after thinking about all of the overtime and all of those 12 hour shifts, seven nights a week, and how much money I had lost, the next thing I thought about was my retirement. My contributory retirement which I put in a percentage and Goodyear matched, and then I had a 401k put in 10% matched my 6% stock, and someday my Social security all would be based on what I was getting paid, what I had legally earned.

I should have gotten it and should have gotten credit to go on for the rest of my life. That's why it hit me so hard and I just, I thought about it. I thought about it. I had a 12 hour shift overnight from seven at night to seven in the morning. I knew that if I started, it would be rough because of retaliation, but I just could not let it go.

I just could not let it go. I had to file a charge with Equal Employment Commission to see what they would say. And to see if they were on my side and I was right.

Lily, I've been wanting to jump in here and just scream hard to keep it together. Honestly, listening to your story, it, it's, it's just incredible to hear it directly from you.

It's, it's so hard for me to sit here calmly when I hear about that because, what we do for our profession, right? For decades, I've been here for 25 years. Bernstein has been in the industry for decades, is we advocate for our clients, both men and women, to ensure their financial stability and success. And one of the biggest variables is income.

And the compound effect over time, as you mentioned, is enormous. And that's why you saw us shaking our heads because we knew exactly what you were saying. Every bit mattered over those 19 years.

Yeah. So before moving on to the next question, we're gonna have a virtual scream moment of just how unfair and how horrific that 19-year experience is.

I'm also gonna have a shout out. Thank you for your anonymous supporter. Um, God bless you, whoever you are out there in the ether anonymously. Amazing that that person came out to support you. And I've heard you talk about this, Lily. It was just the right thing to do because of how unfair this outcome was, and the magnitude over how long this had gone on.

So now let's get back to you, Lily. It must have been so difficult to stand up against a huge corporation like Goodyear for so long. Let's talk about how you felt. Who supported you? You said you were worried about retribution. It sounds like your husband was totally behind you, but did you doubt yourself in this time?

Tell us about the community allies and enemies. How did it feel going through this?

When the word got out in the factory that I had filed a charge with Equal Employment Commission, and Goodyear had been notified and started. Retaliation within the factory on the floor. It was tough. It really was hard.

But I had a lot of people who respected me in management and upper levels who had come by where they, no one could see them. They put their hand on my shoulder and they said, I'm behind you, but they couldn't help me and I called every manager person that I could trying to get people to support me in court.

I ended up, I had. Females that had had the same job I had. They did. They both came and told it just like it was. And then I had one African American male who had the same job that I had, and he had been discriminated against also, but he agreed to come and he was there ready to get on the stand. I also had a union map.

Oh, he was a maintenance man. Um, in work night shift. He had worked for me. He was there prepared to testify. What he had observed, how I had been done, how I had been treated. So it was really tough. I learned early on to go in an hour before to make sure that I had my stop I'd walked the floor before I ever went to the office to make sure I had my stop and ready to go.

One thing that was, um, People don't understand about working on a factory like that. They wondered why. I didn't know how I stood. Um, but when I went to work for Goodyear, they had government contracts. I thought sure, that Goodyear would have their feet held to the fire, so to speak, and adhere to federal laws and guidelines.

But they did what they wanted to do.

So Lily, you worked hard for all those years at Goodyear, and then you faced the adversity, but then your case went all the way to the Supreme Court. We'd love to hear about your experience after you received the news that you lost your Supreme Court case on a technicality.

How did you keep the courage to keep going and also what role did late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg play in urging you to fight?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a fighter herself, and she had been along this journey, and when she read that dissent, she said, these people don't understand what it's like in the real world.

And they didn't. People don't stand around. Water coolers, discussion, your pay, and if you work for an employer like I did, you lose your job if you do so, you cannot find out exactly why and how you're making less. But when I got that verdict, I was just, I, I just couldn't understand it. But there was that tiny little technicality and they threw my case out.

The lower federal court had awarded me 3.8 million and found in my favor, but when it got up to the Supreme Court, they said I just, I was discriminated. But I just waited too long in Justice Ginsburg Challenge Congress. She said, the ball is in your court. It's up to you to change this grave injustice back.

And when she said that, then the people in Washington started working on it. Uh, the National Women Law Center started writing speeches and arguments, and we went to the. We walked the halls, we, I testified twice in the house. I testified twice in the Senate. And um, it was an awesome experience. And no, I wasn't a popular person by the people from Goodyear, but I had a lot of people who I've worked with that did respect me.

I just believed in. And I knew it was the right thing. I knew this was right and I couldn't let it go, even though I never got any money, even when that verdict came out and I knew. At that time, they told me, they said, you'll never get a dime. It's all gone. I knew that. I knew that, but I still, that was not who I was and I couldn't leave the record like that for other people.

But this was something that had to be done in so many organizations. And groups like lawyers and women's groups and the AAUW and the National Women's Law Center, ACLU, AARP, all of the groups across the nation were very upset. They all got on board behind me and what was so astounding, this law was punished in 18 months and it was sponsored and co-sponsored by Democrats and Republicans. That's what I am so very proud of, and by the majority of the votes that passed it to make it become law.

I'm just listening to your answer thinking. Uh, Kim and I were talking about how we're both parents of relatively young kids and such a big theme for raising kids these days is the talk about grit.

And resilience and listening to this story, I hope all the parents out there are gonna be sharing this with their kids because to just understand the length of your journey and what you had to go through and imagine sitting in the Supreme Court and having it thrown out in a technicality. And then you kept going, what a story.

It's really just incredible to listen to you. So look, we're all wearing red today. I don't know if our viewers noticed, but that's in honor of you wearing red the day that the president signed the Fair Pay Restoration Act. So, there's symbolism there. Tell us about the red and what the significance is.

I wear a lot of red when I can because it signifies I'm still in the rent. Even my retirements today, I know when it comes in I'm gonna barely get by because my social security is much less. My retirement check from Goodyear is very, very low. And my other retirements I have already because I needed them to sustain my livelihood, and I wore the red jacket to the White House to signify that loud and clear, and people really got it because people who's working, the women are out there today.

They're living this day in and day out when they know they can't make ends meet. So, in the future, what's next for equal pay and where do we go from here, and what gives you hope for the future?

I have already been to Washington on several occasions and testified about paycheck fairness. I always have hope and believe in faith, so I ask the audience to please always have hope, believe in it.

Put your shoulders back and make sure we get this done and we do it right. Stay in touch with Congress, your state, and make sure we get the laws and the bills to cover our American families.

So thank you, Lilly, for leaving us with hope for the future. The fact that this was passed in a bipartisan way now so long ago gives us hope as well that we can return to the days of joint efforts around topics like this.

So we're talking about this today in many ways, because your story is about to become even bigger, right? It's already become big through the legislation. But the world is now gonna be reminded of this story in more ways than one, because it's being made into a movie. And we hear Patricia Clarkson is going to be playing you.

Uh, I want you to tell us about the movie, what's happening, the timing. And I know Kim and I are already planning and working on, uh, screenings and events to really support this effort. So tell us about the movie.

Thank you. I am so excited about this movie because it will leave a story and touch a lot of people.

So this movie will leave a legacy, I'm hoping, that will go on for many years. The, uh, book, it came out in 2012. It continues to be published in paperback, and it's in a lot of law schools, a lot of, um, HR classes and colleges, and I find it in history classes even today. On some of the campuses I visit, so it's exciting that this movie will.

Well, we, we hear it's coming out in the back half of this year and I think it's gonna be shown at some film festivals. I'm sure it will get lots of accolades and stay tuned for all of our viewers to, to see what's next. And I know, Lilly, you're really on the circuit now with media around equal payday and for Women's History Month.

So we, we love having you here and just really wanna thank you so much for your time with us today. And again, can't thank you. For your resilience, your tenacity, your grit, what an extraordinary role model for all of us, not just women. Um, in your story, Kim, did you have any concluding comments as well?

I think that your story and who you are, Lilly speaks for itself.

And so we all owe you a debt of gratitude for being so brave, especially with the adversity and the difficulty that you faced and the setbacks. So, um, thank you for joining us today, but more importantly, thank you for everything you've done, for all of us. Thank you.

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