Lilly Ledbetter: "All I Ever Expected Was to be Treated Fairly"

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Once upon a time, in a land that now seems very far away, a 19-year-old girl landed what she thought at the time was her dream job -- a position as an on-air television reporter! It wasn't in a major city or anything, but she thought she was well on her way to the ultimate dream job (pre-cable) -- network TV. So she didn't worry too much about the meager salary of $120 a week because she was so excited about being a real reporter.

While she could afford to eat out once a week at all-the-pasta-you-can-eat-for-99-cents night, her male co-workers could afford a beer, too. She thought maybe they just budgeted better. Then she learned that they actually earned $150 a week -- not a lot more in post-tax dollars, but percentage wise, a pretty big difference.

She was still young and naive, so she confronted management, but was told there would be no pay increase for her -- after all, she was married (yes, she was young and stupid that way, but that's another story for another day), so management said that because her husband could "support" her, the single guys were entitled to make more money doing the same job she did, because they "needed" the extra bucks.

I'm still ticked off (yes, I was actually 19 once!), but one of Congress' first votes may make me feel a little better about that story and could ensure that my nine-year-old daughter never has a similar one to tell her children.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that the Lilly Ledbetter bill -- introduced after the Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter (watch this video!) could not sue her employer, Goodyear, for decades-old wage discrimination -- will get re-introduced and voted on in the House of Representatives this week and hopefully get taken up by the Senate next week so that American women don't have to worry anymore about whether they will be paid equal wages for equal work. In a conference call Thursday, Pelosi said "that [this] fair pay legislation is critical not only for women and families but for the economic security of our nation."

You might ask why Lilly waited so long. Easy. She didn't have the evidence she needed to prove it, until, as she told The American Prospect:

The only way that I really knew was that someone left an anonymous note in my mailbox showing my pay and the pay for the three males who were doing the same job, just on different shifts. Until then, I had no proof. I'd hear people talking about how much they were making when that individual and myself were splitting someone else's shift, and I knew mine wasn't near theirs, but I had no proof. Until I got that scrap of paper.

And THAT'S why it's so important that the bill named for her be enacted into law. It's only fair. It's just "simple justice," according to Congressman George Miller, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The Ledbetter Act was defeated the first time around in 2008 thanks to major efforts by Republicans like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch -- a father of three daughters, I might add -- who said at the time that he opposed an equal pay bill because he didn't believe it would help victims of wage discrimination and that it would only enrich the lawyers representing those victims.

Sorry, but I don't buy that. On average, women still only earn around 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man. And depending on the type of job you have and your level of education, pay discrimination over a lifetime could add up to between $400,000 and $700,000, or more, according to a study from the Center for American Progress. Even if you have to hire a lawyer to fight to get that back, I'd say that's worth it, especially in these economic times.

And, as you might guess, it's not just about a weekly salary. Getting paid less every week means getting lower contributions to pension accounts. And, yes, corporations have their eye on that ball. AT&T recently argued to the Supreme Court that, based on the Ledbetter decision, AT&T was fully within its rights to reduce the amount of pension contributions for women employees who had taken maternity leave.

With the current Supreme Court, you can probably guess whose side they're going to take on that one. You can listen here to the learn about the other ways the current Ledbetter Supreme Court decision is hurting American women financially.

I don't want women -- or men, for that matter -- to have to hope that to be paid equally, that some anonymous friend will leave a little scrap of paper for them with evidence that they're being discriminated against like someone finally did for Lilly Ledbetter. I'd really rather have a nice big piece of legislation, and a formal Rose Garden signing ceremony just for good measure, where a President Obama will give all workers, regardless of gender, another piece of ammunition in the fight for equal pay for equal work.

Like Lilly said, "All I ever expected was to be treated fairly." In America, is that really so much to ask?

Joanne Bamberger is a BlogHer Contributing Editor for Politics & News. When she's not hanging out here, you can find her wonky self over at her place, PunditMom!

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