ORONO, Maine — Lilly Ledbetter had no idea she had been underpaid for the nearly 20 years she worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber until she was ready to retire in 1998.
Ledbetter, now 74, took her fight, claiming that she had been underpaid when her compensation was compared to male colleagues, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. The justices said in a 5-4 decision in 2007 that she had taken too long to file the complaint.
The U.S. Congress reversed that ruling two years later with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Ledbetter, 74, of Jacksonville, Ala., will be the keynote speaker Saturday, June 2, at this year’s Maine NEW Leadership conference during a dinner at the Penobscot Valley Country Club.
“I never would have dreamed I’d have my name on a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court,” she said in a telephone interview Saturday. “And I never thought I’d have a bill named after me.”
Twenty-nine participants from 18 different institutions who either recently graduated or are attending college will participate in the program.
Ledbetter said that she speaks to a lot of college students and believes they benefit from hearing her story.
“They think we have equal pay, but after I come and share my story they understand that it is not enforced as it should be,” she said. “They also don’t understand that unequal pay affects them the rest of their lives. Not only did my family suffer because I did not get equal pay, I’m suffering today because my retirement is based on what I earned.”
Ledbetter discovered that she was making $3,727 a month compared to three men who were doing the same job but were being paid between $4,286 and $5,236 per month. She learned of the pay disparity when an unsigned note was left in her mailbox.
Earlier this year, Ledbetter published a book about her experience called “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.”
In May 2010, Ledbetter was awarded an honorary law degree by the City University of New York Law School. She was inducted last year into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
The conference at which Ledbetter will speak is part of a national network that started at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Maine program, co-sponsored by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has been in place since 2008.
It is designed to address the historic and contemporary under-representation of women in politics. The six-day program, which begins Friday, offers participants interactive sessions on leadership development, networking, diversity training and the realities of holding office. It will be held on the University of Maine campus, where students and faculty stay together at the Doris Twitchell Allen Village. Off-campus activities include visits to the State House and Margaret Chase Smith’s home and library in Skowhegan.
Mary Cathcart, 69, of Orono, a former legislator who is now a senior policy fellow at UMaine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and co-director of Maine NEW Leadership, said last year that the program is about passing a political torch from one generation to the next.
“Maine has a proud tradition of women in leadership roles, and this program is helping set the stage for those who will follow in those footsteps,” she has said of the program.