Equal Work, Unequal Pay

A Q&A with Lilly Ledbetter, at 70 a powerful symbol in the fight against pay discrimination.


Do you have an expectation of what the Senate will do on the Fair Pay Act?

I'm hoping they pass it. My gut says maybe they will. What is so amazing to me is the fact that I have a dining room table at home that is full of correspondence from all over the country, from states like California, Oklahoma, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and I've been speaking all over the Southeast, well, Northeast, too. And I find that in every group, women come forward...they're physicians, they're surgeons, they're teachers, professors, nurses, all walks of life. It's not just the first-line supervisor like I was. It's all walks of life are being shortchanged if they're female. On the opposing side are groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What is your thought about the interests, all the way up to President Bush, lining up against you?

I understand where they're coming from, except President Bush. You just turned 70, and in retirement you're the symbol of the fight for equal pay. What's that like?

I had no idea that equal pay was so far behind. I thought this was a southern problem, and I've learned that it's national. But what has inspired me so much is all of the correspondence and contacts and speak-out articles that the men have provided in support of this. Because today, they have [working] wives, they have [working] granddaughters, they have [working] daughters. How many letters do you think you've received in support?

Boxes. I have not answered them all, either. I need a secretary. Do you get hate mail, crank calls?

No, no. Absolutely not. I've had nothing but good. What's your relationship like with former colleagues?

They're really nice. I ran into one of the human-resources employees at a fast-food place the other day, and he's now teaching at the college in town, and he said, "Hey, Lilly, we talk about you all the time in my classes." And he said, "I would like you to come speak to the class, if you're not too expensive." And I said, "Well, just my gas money, and I actually could walk." In your earlier years, was Lilly Ledbetter a fighter?

Yes, always a fighter. Where do you get that spirit?

I'm going to tell my deep, dark secret here. I grew up in the country, and my mother, even though I was an only child, she felt like I needed to learn the ethics of work, and so in the summers and the fall, I had to work in my grandfather's cotton patches. I was in my teens, like 12, 14, along in there. It was hard. Hard and hot. In my day, there were no fast-food places to go work. If there were, there wasn't a vehicle to take to go there. It was very hard work. And I knew then, and I made a determination, that I never, never wanted to work in the fields for a living.