On this day in 2009, I signed my first bill into law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The legislation was named after an unassuming Alabaman who deep into a long career at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, had discovered that she’d routinely been paid less than her male counterparts.
Lilly would go on to file a wage discrimination suit against the company. It should have been a slam dunk, but in 2007, defying all common sense, the Supreme Court had disallowed the lawsuit. According to Justice Samuel Alito, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required Lilly to have filed her claim within 180 days of when the discrimination first occurred—in other words, six months after she received her first paycheck, and many years before she actually discovered the pay disparity. For over a year, Republicans in the Senate had blocked corrective action (with President Bush promising to veto it if it passed). But thanks to the quick legislative work by our emboldened Democratic majorities, the bill sat ready to be signed on a small ceremonial desk in the East Room.
Lilly and I had become friends during the campaign. I knew her family, knew her struggles. She stood next to me that day as I put my signature on the bill, using a different pen for each letter of my name. I thought not just about Lilly but also about my mother, and my grandmother, Toot, and all the other working women across the country who had ever been passed over for promotions or been paid less than they were worth. The legislation I was signing wouldn’t reverse centuries of discrimination. But it was something, a small step forward. This is why I ran, I told myself. This is what the office can do.