Nothing could dramatize the country's ideological and political shift better than the sight of President Obama signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in front of a crowded roomful of women’s rights activists in the East Room, with a beaming bipartisan throng of legislators beside him.
It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of veteran feminist fighter, Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, on Thursday morning. She was chief sponsor of the bill to reverse the Supreme Court ruling of 2007 that had decimated wage discrimination prohibitions.
It’s rare for Congress to overturn the Supreme Court. One of the last times occurred on another women’s rights issue where the court overreached. Then, the court had ruled that employers could exclude medical coverage for pregnancy disability without violating sex discrimination laws. But when Justice William Rehnquist got a tad too cute in his opinion, saying that it wasn’t sexism because if men could get pregnant, they, too, would be prohibited medical coverage, even the most reactionary members of Congress swung behind bills to overturn the court by passing the Pregnancy Disability Act.
This time, the Supreme Court had ruled against Alabama tire factory worker Lilly Ledbetter, saying she hadn’t filed her pay discrimination lawsuit early enough—within 180 days of the first paycheck that paid her a lot less than her male co-workers. The fact that she didn’t learn about the pay inequities until 19 years later was immaterial.
The ruling significantly gutted Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, under which most workplace discrimination cases have been brought. The Ledbetter Act basically restores the law’s provision to what it had been before the Supreme Court ruling: a person claiming discrimination has to file a complaint within 180 days of a discriminatory act—but that can be your most recent paycheck.
Ledbetter didn’t have to become a crusader against pay discrimination but she did. After 10 years of struggle, including the Supreme Court rebuff, she was rewarded by the ultimate victory: Congressional passage of a bill named after her, with Obama making it law as his first significant bill-signing. Michelle Obama gave a reception in her honor afterwards, in her first major public move at the White House.
The East Room ceremony was big on symbolism as well as substance. Obama had worked closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and with national women’s groups to make sure the Ledbetter Act was the first major law he signed.
“It’s appropriate that this is the first bill we do together,” he said of Pelosi, thanking her for “your extraordinary work” in making it happen.
The ceremony also showed a new, informal style from the President and it showed Michelle Obama in her new role as a partner who can continue the program—hosting the reception after her husband returned to economic problems.
When Obama came into the East Room side by side with Ledbetter, now 70 and newly widowed, the room exploded in applause. The President stepped back a bit and applauded Ledbetter, then moved forward to give her a big hug and moved sideways to applaud her again.
And then he launched into his first policy speech as president on equity and its economic consequences.
“Equal pay is by no means just a woman’s issue. It’s a family issue. It’s about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition and child care, couples who wind up with less to retire on, households where one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves; that’s the difference between affording the mortgage—or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor bills—or not. And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month’s paycheck to simple and plain discrimination.”
The Ledbetter ceremony took place in a week of conflicting pluses and minuses for women’s rights advocates.
By executive order, Obama revoked the Mexico City policy, which had become known as the global gag rule because it blocked federal money from programs or groups working overseas on reproductive issues if those groups had in any part of their global operations anything to do with abortion. It also signaled restoration of U.S. funding for the UN Population Fund, reversing another Bush administration policy. The feminists cheered; women’s groups overseas praised the President.
But bumps in the road came with several other bills.