I grew up in Possum Trot, Ala., chopping cotton in the springtime and picking it in the fall. The work was hard on our hands and the sun was hot on our skin. But we learned early on — boys and girls alike — that we had to do a good day’s work for a good day’s pay.
Years later I was hired as an overnight manager at a Goodyear factory. I thought the same principle I learned in my poor, rural town still was true, so I worked just as hard as everyone else.
I got some treatment you might expect as a young woman at a factory in the South — so I worked even harder to prove to the men around me that I was smart and good at what I did. I took pride in my job. And twice a month I went to my mailbox and found the paycheck I thought I’d earned.
One day I opened that mailbox and found something that would change my life. An anonymous coworker — to this day, I don’t know who — had left a pencil-written note on a torn piece of paper with some numbers on it. It showed how much more my male coworkers were making, even though they had less education, training and experience.
I’d been at Goodyear almost 20 years, and was still making 20 percent less than the lowest-paid male supervisor in my same position. I’d been praised and promoted by my bosses, but rewarded with much smaller raises than my male coworkers got.
It hit me in the gut like a ton of bricks. I immediately thought of the countless overtime hours that I worked every chance I could, and realized I was paid for them based on an unfair salary. All those good days of work hadn’t earned me the good day’s pay I deserved.
It was about fairness, and it was against the law. It was about supporting my family — school, doctors’ bills, groceries and the mortgage. It was about my local economy, and the money I didn’t have to spend in the community.
And it was about my retirement: Since that’s based on our salaries, too, I’m still shortchanged long after I’ve stopped working. Because my Goodyear pension isn’t enough to pay two bills, I burned through my small 401(k) in two years before I became eligible for Social Security.
So I went to court, and won. The company appealed and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Goodyear won by one vote. The Court said I should have filed my complaint within six months of the first unfair paycheck I’d received almost two decades earlier. There was nothing the men could do that I couldn’t — but I couldn’t fight for fair pay if I didn’t even know I was being paid unfairly. Like so many women, I’ve never asked for or gotten a handout. I’ve only asked for a fair shot.
Barack Obama heard about my case and went to work. His grandmother worked in a bank her whole life, including long after she’d hit the glass ceiling. She even had to train the men who were paid higher salaries to do the work she’d showed them how to do. And he never wants his two girls to be disrespected in the same way.
As a senator he fought to give women enough time to file a complaint after we learn we’re being discriminated against and underpaid. He believes we should reward hard work and responsibility. He stands up for the middle class because he’s struggled, too. And he continues to fight because he knows what happened over a generation can’t be fixed overnight.
I had to wait more than a decade and a half before I even knew I was being discriminated against. Within a week and a half after President Obama was inaugurated, he signed his name to the law that bears mine. Three years ago today, he made it the very first one he enacted.
I’ll never see a cent of the salary I lost over all those years at Goodyear. My case is over and the Lilly Ledbetter law won’t help Lilly Ledbetter. But in recognizing what’s right and fair, President Obama’s leadership has given me a much richer reward: knowing that my daughter, my granddaughter and every other woman in America will never again feel helpless when they don’t get an equal day’s pay for an equal day’s work.
A version of this post appeared in the Charlotte Observer.