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Why I Fight For Equal Pay For Women

I was earning $44,724 while the highest-paid man earned $59,028 and the other two followed close behind, earning $58,464 and $58,226. Maybe I was seeing things. Maybe this note was a serious mistake or a bad joke, though I knew in my gut it wasn't.
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In early spring of 1998 when the torn piece of paper arrived in my mailbox at Goodyear, listing my name and salary alongside those of the three other area managers, my life changed forever. I'd stopped to check my mail, as I'd done every day for 19 years. I flipped through assorted company memos and fliers, almost missing the torn piece of paper with black handwriting on it stuck in the middle.

Reading the scribbled words, my heart jerked as if hit by a lightning bolt. The note showed my salary, listed next to the three male managers' salaries: I was earning $44,724 while the highest-paid man earned $59,028 and the other two followed close behind, earning $58,464 and $58,226. Maybe I was seeing things. Maybe this note was a serious mistake or a bad joke, though I knew in my gut it wasn't.

As I read those numbers again and again, I couldn't help but think how I'd started at Goodyear in 1979. Almost forty at the time, I was far from naïve: I'd known from the get-go I'd have to work longer and smarter than the men in order to prove myself. I came in early and stayed late to make sure my area was prepped properly. I rarely said no, never stopped learning, and never backed down. And I'd done what I was supposed to: over the years my production numbers were high, my scrap low. I kept absenteeism in my department to a minimum. Now I was the first one they called when a machine went down. I truly believed my hard work had paid off when I was chosen as one of four managers to start the Radial Light Truck Division and later when I was awarded the Top Performance Award.

After all those years of hard work, how in the world could I be paid so much less? The difference in salaries just didn't make sense. I stuffed the note in my pocket and started my shift. I don't know how I made through that night. One minute I wanted to give somebody a piece of my mind, wondering how many people knew about this; the next, I wanted to throw up from the anxiety, remembering how much my family had done without. All night, humiliated and devastated, I struggled with what to do. If I ignored it, I couldn't live with myself. If I said something, there'd be retaliation, payback far worse than any I'd experienced before.

By the end of my shift, I was so tired I could barely walk, and I was sweating from the effort of keeping my emotions at bay. On the way home, I didn't bother with stopping at Hardee's for my usual bacon biscuit, and I didn't turn on the country music station that never failed to soothe me. Heading back home directly into the morning sun, I let my emotions flow through me --anger, sadness, fear. It wasn't pleasant, but it was something of a relief, like blood returning to your arm or leg when the circulation has been cut off.

The drive that morning seemed like the longest I'd ever made. I could feel myself holding the steering wheel so tight my fingers tingled as I remembered my life at Goodyear, the good times and the bad. I thought about when the men I supervised, with a simple nod or a few quiet words, thanked me for looking out for them, making sure they were paid properly for overtime or given the right number of vacation days.

As I deliberated about what to do next, I felt shame and haunting humiliation deep in my bones. Those numbers said loud and clear that it didn't matter how hard I'd worked, how much I wanted to succeed. I'd been born the wrong sex and that was that. I knew the only choice I had was to stand up for myself and do what was right. I understood the risk I was taking. I'd seen workers lose so much fighting for years for disability. It surely would be the hardest fight of my life, and there were no guarantees I'd win. I certainly didn't have the money to pay a lawyer to help me. And I might lose my pension with only two years left before retirement. But as I ruminated, I realized I had no other choice.

Little did I know I would spend the next eleven years of my life fighting for equal pay. But even knowing what I know now, I would make the same decision today as I did that early spring day so long ago. As we celebrate Equal Pay Day, I am hopeful the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act will impact future generations of women and men I will not live to see, but my granddaughter and great-granddaughter will.

Lilly Ledbetter is the author, and Lanier Scott Isom is the co-author of Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond [Crown Archetype, $25.00]. The book recalls Ledbetter's experience fighting over equal pay for womn with Goodyear.