Grace and Grit
California Lawyer

Grace and Grit

My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond

July 2012

Crown Archetype, 288 pages, $25, hardcover

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As one of only a handful of female managers at tire manufacturing giant Goodyear in the 1980s, Lilly Ledbetter got used to receiving information by unconventional means - anonymous notes left on her desk and dashboard. Some warned about batches of bad tires or problems in her production crew, a couple were mash notes. But one wedged in her inbox changed her life and the law forever: It listed the salaries of four Goodyear managers, and hers was nearly 40 percent lower than the pay of the three men who began working at the plant when she did.

It was the major turning point in a saga that began the day Ledbetter took the job at Goodyear's plant in Gadsden, Alabama, despite her mother's disapproving nag: "Shouldn't you be doing what a woman's supposed to do?

Ledbetter's mostly male coworkers were also less than supportive, one of them protesting when she first was made supervisor: "I take orders from a bitch at home, and I'm not taking orders from a bitch at work."

In fact, being elevated to a supervisory position at the plant proved to have plenty of downsides - including many hijinks aimed at her car in the company parking lot: a screw stuck in a tire, the windshield cut out with a glass cutter, a gear cable dangerously vandalized.

But it was the pay disparity that rankled her most, compelling Ledbetter to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 1998 - after weighing the sure humiliation of keeping silent against the sure retaliation for speaking up about it.

Born in Possum Trot, Alabama, in 1938 and married at age 17, Ledbetter might seem like an unlikely champion of women's rights. In telling her own story, she glosses over what might be seen as seeds of feminist awakenings, such as working full time and opening a bank account in her own name. She concentrates more on what she missed during her 19-year career at Goodyear: helping plan her daughter's wedding, attending her son's college graduation ceremony, spending time with her ailing father before he died - all because she was working so much overtime.

Her EEOC complaint over unequal pay turned into a lawsuit that at first fared well in court, resulting in a $3.8 million jury verdict - a nearly unprecedented sum in 2003. But four years later the U.S. Supreme Court famously ruled in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc. (550 U.S. 618 (2007)) that Ledbetter's claim was time-barred under Title VII since the original pay decision was made many years earlier. That holding essentially immunized employers against accountability for discriminatory pay after an initial 180 days passed.

Ledbetter was denied back pay, damages, and a fair pension by a decision that her supporters felt overlooked the reality that workers rarely discuss their pay and so are hard-pressed to catch inequities early on. Among those supporters was Barack Obama, who invited her to his inauguration, and while dancing with her at the Neighborhood Ball promised, "We're going to do this."

She knew he was referring not to their dance on stage but to passing what became her triumph: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act (Pub. L. No. 111-2), the first bill the president signed, on January 29, 2009. It makes each discriminatory paycheck the starting point for a new filing period for a claim, rather than the date of the original decision to discriminate.

Occasionally, Ledbetter's plainspoken descriptions in Grace and Grit just plain get in the way, as when she laments that she didn't want a sales job outside Goodyear that "sounded as unpredictable as walking barefoot on a sidewalk scattered with spiky brown gumballs from a sweet-gum tree."

But at its best, the book is a reminder that the law often gets made by regular folks sacrificing and speaking out against what simply seems wrong.

Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer, writer, and editor who lives in San Francisco, frequently writes about women's issues.

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