Oct. 26--When Lilly Ledbetter was accepted to Goodyear's management-training program in 1979, it was a dream come true for a car aficionado who loved the open road.
Little did she know it would be the on-ramp to a long journey that would eventually make her a symbol to women everywhere of the battle for equal pay in the workplace.
At the time, Ledbetter, who is headlining the Bethlehem YWCA's second annual Breaking the Glass Ceiling Gala at Lehigh University Saturday, was simply thrilled to get a job at Goodyear, and lobbied hard to be assigned to the radial tire factory.
"I politicked, I went to everyone I ever knew," said Ledbetter, who lives in Alabama. "I want in the radial plant, because I know radial tires are the wave of the future."
Her own car was already "running radials," Ledbetter said.
Flash forward almost 30 years and Ledbetter was appearing on stage at the Democratic National Convention, a symbol of then-candidate Barack Obama's promise to pass legislation making it easier for women and minorities to pursue legal action for wage discrimination.
Ledbetter discovered in 1998 that she was being paid thousands less by Goodyear Tire and Rubber than men in her same position, sued the company for gender discrimination and won a $3 million verdict. But it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007, which ruled 5-4 that she needed to file suit within 180 days of receiving her first unequal paycheck.
A law preserving the right to sue for unequal pay would become the first legislation signed into law by President Obama after his 2008 election, making Ledbetter one of a select group of Americans ever to have their names officially attached to a federal law: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
"This has been the most amazing journey ... for me it was just unbelievable," Ledbetter said. "All I ever wanted to do, my initial goal in life, was the get the most education I could and get the best paying job I could get to pay for education for my children and to save for retirement."
Getting Ledbetter to speak at the YWCA's second annual Breaking the Glass Ceiling Gala was a natural, said Michelle Chrin, president of the group's board of directors.
"Who else better to represent the fight for pay equality than Lilly Ledbetter?" Chrin said. "She was a natural fit, but we are thrilled to have her."
The gala rose out of a 2012 study that showed the Lehigh Valley was one of the worst places in the country for women's pay equity, with women earning on average 72 cents on the dollar compared with men, Chrin said. It ranked the Valley as the seventh-worst metro area in the nation.
Chrin said she is inspired by the personal and professional risks Ledbetter took by pursuing her claim.
"She had the courage to stand up for what is right even though I'm sure it was not the easiest thing in the world to do, facing that adversity, that is really impressive," she said.
Ledbetter has made pay equity her personal cause and has not stopped working for companion legislation, The Paycheck Fairness Act, which she says would help make that a reality. Opponents say the law won't fix the equal-pay issue and will create an expensive new federal bureaucracy to monitor the issue.
Today, she works to get women elected to public office and worries about women who worked their whole lives for lower wages and are now struggling to make ends meet in retirement. She also urges young women just starting their careers to do their research and negotiate a fair starting salary.
Ledbetter said she hopes for a day when a woman like Marissa Meyer can be appointed CEO of a company like Yahoo, and the only news is that Yahoo has a new CEO.
But to get there, it will take more women in corporate and political leadership roles, she said.
"We will never have true equity until we achieve those goals," Ledbetter said. "It is still front page news when an African American woman or any woman gets a position with a Fortune 500 company or a board of directors."
Limited seating may be available, contact the YWCA at 610-867-4669, ext. 102