On October 9, I had the honor of hearing Lilly Ledbetter speak on my campus, St. Cloud State University. Ledbetter’s story is an inspiring one. After 19 years of working at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Alabama as a production manager, a note was slipped into her mailbox revealing a startling pay gap between her and three male colleagues in the same position. Despite knowing that taking the corporation to court would be a long, uphill battle that would likely not lead to the compensation she was owed, she sued Goodyear. “It wasn’t about me anymore,” she said. “It was about my daughter, my granddaughter, and the women and families in this nation.” Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2007, after nine years of fighting, she received the final verdict. She lost because of an unreasonably short statute of limitations that would have required her to file suit years before she even knew she was being paid unfairly.
But her story did not end there. Ledbetter became the namesake for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The bill righted the wrong of the Supreme Court decision by allowing the statute of limitations to reset with every discriminatory paycheck.
As I sat in the audience listening to this strong woman share her story, two things happened to me. First, I was humbled by how much women in the past have achieved to guarantee me certain rights. Second, I was inspired to do the same for future generations of women. I think that my generation often does not take the time to learn about the influential women in our country’s history. I feel that young women believe the struggles of the past are over, when in fact they are far from complete. Even today, women’s median earnings are still only 77 percent of men’s, which accounts for huge losses in income, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits over a lifetime of work. But Ledbetter’s speech appeared to raise students’ awareness. Through the question-and-answer session following the speech, you could hear people expressing their outrage at what happened to her and their demand to change what is still occurring today.
St. Cloud State University has been making great strides to bring inspiring programming to young women. At the SCSU Women’s Center, where I work, we strive to empower women, increase awareness, and develop programming to support those principles on our campus. Our mission statement speaks to these ideals: “With passion and purpose to end sexist oppression, the Women’s Center promotes a safe, inclusive, and engaged community through advocacy, education, alliance-building, and women’s leadership.”
My hope is that by bringing speakers like Ledbetter to campus, our generation will have a greater appreciation for past struggles and those who fought them. I also hope that when someone from my generation is faced with a situation where she has to decide whether to stand up for herself, she will think like Ledbetter: “I knew that the only choice I had was to stand up for myself and do what was right. I understood the risk I was taking. It would surely be the hardest fight of my life, and there were no guarantees I’d win. … But as I ruminated, I realized I had no other choice.”
This post was written by Bre Moulder, a St. Cloud State University sophomore majoring in political science and women’s studies. St. Cloud State University is an AAUW college/university partner member.