For Women, What a Difference a Year Almost Made

One year after President Obama signed his first piece of legislation -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- the job of ending illegal wage discrimination is incomplete.
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by Lilly Ledbetter and Linda Hallman, CAE

A year ago today, on January 29, 2009, a new president signed his first piece of legislation into law. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act restored workers' rights to challenge illegal wage discrimination in the federal courts.

It was a proud moment, but we're sad to report that the job of ending wage discrimination in this country remains incomplete. The Lilly Ledbetter Act became law, but the Paycheck Fairness Act, its essential companion legislation, has stalled in the Senate.

What a difference a year almost made. But the good news for women and their families is that this year we can finish the job.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is a sorely needed update to the original Equal Pay Act signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It would close loopholes, strengthen incentives to prevent pay discrimination and bring the Equal Pay Act in line with other civil rights laws. And it would also prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about employers' wage practices or disclose their own wages--something Lilly could have used in her case.

The need for such a law is more urgent today than ever before. It's inherently unfair that the average woman in America makes, on average, just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Families today are more dependent on a woman's earnings for economic survival than ever before. But in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, pay equity is more than a question of fairness. It's a question of survival.

Paycheck equity isn't just morally right. And it doesn't just benefit women--it benefits families, communities, and the nation. Think about it: When women get equal pay for equal work and finally receive their rightful salaries, those dollars can flow more freely back into the larger economy in the form of consumer spending. Paycheck fairness for America's working women is itself an economic stimulus package.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has already passed the House of Representatives. President Obama, who co-sponsored the bill when he was a senator, is ready to sign it. But it's stuck in the Senate--and if it doesn't pass this year, we're back to square one. We need to pry it loose from Senate obstruction and pass S. 182 now. It's time the Equal Pay Act lives up to its name. The women of America have waited long enough.

Lilly Ledbetter, a 20-year employee of Goodyear Tire, is perhaps the best known face of the pay equity issue. Linda Hallman is executive director of AAUW.

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