On Jan. 29, 2009, nine days after he was inaugurated for his first term, Barack Obama signed off on the first new law of his presidency: the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which made it easier for American workers to pursue unequal pay complaints.
“It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—we are upholding one of this nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness,” Obama said at the signing ceremony, adding that his own grandmother had repeatedly hit the glass ceiling at the bank where she worked most of her life.
Among the beaming people standing before Obama that day was then-70-year-old Ledbetter, who’d been fighting her own equal pay battle for more than a decade. In 1998, after 19 years, Ledbetter had retired from her job as a manager at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Alabama; shortly after, she sued the company for paying her less than her male counterparts. While she initially won her case, filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that decision was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, which ruled that Ledbetter had not filed her suit before the statute of limitations had expired.
The court decision galvanized feminist and workers’ rights groups, as well as House Democrats, who pushed to change the law. The bill signed by Obama altered the statute of limitations for filing equal pay lawsuits; instead of having to file within 180 of the first affected paycheck, workers now have up to 180 days after their most recent paycheck.
In the years since, Ledbetter has continued her work as an activist for workplace equality. On Tues., Feb. 26, she’ll talk about her work at a free public lecture at Mount Holyoke College. The talk will take place at 7 p.m. in Chapin Auditorium, at the college’s Mary Woolley Hall, and will be followed by a panel discussion with several lawyers and scholars involved in the fight for fair pay.•