Lilly Ledbetter worked as an area manager at Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama for nineteen years. Her crusade to remedy the gender-based pay discrimination that she suffered during that time received national attention, and her activism led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009.
Ledbetter grew up in rural Alabama and began working in her grandfather’s cotton fields while she was a teenager. She married Sergeant Major Charles Ledbetter and had two children. In 1979, she took a job as an overnight shift manager and area manager at the local Goodyear plant.
As part of her contract, Ledbetter was forbidden to discuss the details of her pay with other employees. As she approached retirement in 1998, however, an anonymous tipster alerted her to an alarming fact: despite receiving a “Top Performer” award in 1996, she had been making far less than her male colleagues for the entirety of her employment at Goodyear.
Outraged, Ledbetter made a formal complaint against Goodyear with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. After the company tried to discipline her by assigning her to manual labor, Ledbetter filed a discrimination suit and was awarded approximately $3.3 million in damages (later reduced to $360,000 because of a law limiting a company's liability for damages.)
Goodyear, however, appealed and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of the tire-maker, saying that Ledbetter had missed the statute of limitations (then, only 180 days from her first unequal paycheck) to file a discrimination suit.
Although she never received any compensation for the discrimination she faced, Ledbetter fought to pass legislation ensuring that other women would not have to deal with the same inequities she had. In 2009, President Barack Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first piece of official legislation that he signed upon taking office. The bill revises previous legislation and states that the 180-day statute of limitations resets with each new paycheck affected by discriminatory action, giving plaintiffs more time to file their claims.