Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lilly Ledbetter: Every Woman (and Man's) Best Friend

In Washington, D. C. and State legislatures, women’s issues are front and center. News analysts, political junkies and even famous cartoonist Gary Trudeau editorialize about the legislation passed and under consideration. Many women may feel as I do: wounded by some of the assumptions and much of the rhetoric.

Let us not forget in all this very serious debate that many women are and have always been extraordinary. Today, I celebrate one woman who worked hard in behalf of us all. She is Lilly McDaniel Ledbetter, a woman who could boast that she is one of the rare U. S. citizens to have a law that bears her name, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

I said that she could boast, but if you’ve ever seen her speak or heard her interviewed, you would know that her character traits do not include boastfulness. What I have observed in its place are reserve, dignity, and most important for the rest of us, determination.

Mrs. Ledbetter is a 19-year veteran of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company where she earned excellent performance reviews and more responsibility in spite of enduring sexual harassment. She endured Corporate Spite, the kind that anyone who has ever spoken truth to power understands, after she reported the harasser. In exchange for an attempt to secure justice for herself, the company nudged her to the margins at her company and altered the type of harassment by reassigning her and limiting her opportunities to advance. In brief, she worked every day in a hostile environment.

Nevertheless, she soldiered on, turning in a full, honest day’s work over and over again in the belief that she was at least earning the same pay as the men to which she was compared. Only by accident did she learn otherwise. Goodyear required its employees to sign a contract vowing not to discuss wages with one another, but someone thought Mrs. Ledbetter needed to know that her monthly paycheck was $559 less than the lowest paid male performing the same work. That someone, still unknown to Mrs. Ledbetter, shared the truth with her.

Mrs. Ledbetter filed a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), and Goodyear retaliated again, assigning her to lift heavy rubber tires even though she was in her 60s at the time. Lilly labored on anyway, and added a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court to her labor.

I wish I could tell you that she won her case, but she did not. The Supreme Court declared that a person must file a complaint about unfair wages within 180 days of the discriminatory pay practice even if the worker did not know that discrimination was taking place. Thus, according to the Supreme Court, there is no legal remedy unless the worker has knowledge and files a complaint in the first six months of the discrimination.

Mrs. Ledbetter and countless others discriminated against because of race, age, or gender had no recourse, but unassuming, hard-working Mrs. Ledbetter did not surrender even before the Supreme Court. She moved to the only other governmental branch empowered and authorized to redefine law: the U. S. Congress. She used her energy and her resources to knock on doors and speak to power, including Hillary Clinton, candidate Barack Obama, Senator and candidate John McCain, and Sarah Palin. The McCain-Palin team scoffed at Mrs. Ledbetter’s call for equal pay and equal opportunity to justice. McCain even called the proposed law a “trial lawyer’s dream.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Ledbetter persisted and was standing beside President Obama when he signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a law that allows a person 180 days from the date of the last check received to file a complaint. In other words, if Mrs. Ledbetter had become aware of the pay discrepancy on the day she retired from Goodyear, she still had 180 days in which to file a complaint with the EEOC.

The Ledbetter law is incredibly significant for workers because until 2009, businesses had no incentive to comply with the existing law. They could simply hide the truth and then be held blameless if complaints fell outside 180-days window. Now businesses risk penalties and jury settlements if they fail to comply.

Still some politicians want businesses to be free once more. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently rolled back a woman’s right to seek justice in the courts, justifying his decision with the McCain defense: he claims that granting women access to a court hearing would only “clog up the courts.”

Why would women and their right to seek redress be so toxic to our courts? Hasn’t Scott Walker just implied that many businesses pay many women less than their male counterparts so the number of potential suits will be legion.

I assure Walker and McCain and the conservative think-tanks advancing this notion that women have been waiting in line many, many decades--for the right to vote, for the right to own property, for the right to determine how best to care for her own body, and for the right to be paid for equal work. Women will wait in line for the courts, if necessary, because their turn at the head of the line helps all those others waiting. More importantly, women do not need men such as McCain or Walker to decide if that line is too long.

Mrs. Ledbetter’s tireless pursuit of justice is critical because those men who worked beside Mrs. Ledbetter all those years now enjoy more Social Security income because a lifetime of earnings determines how much retirement and Social Security income a man or woman will receive. In other words, the more a worker earns in his lifetime, the more secure is his retirement. Mrs. Ledbetter lost not only income during her working life but income in her retired life. Now Scott Walker again wishes to limit what a woman’s resources will be while she works and after she retires.

Even though Lilly Ledbetter could not recover her lost wages or her lost retirement income, she fought for all those who follow. Men and women, racial minorities, and older workers have a better chance of expecting fair pay and redress because Mrs. Ledbetter was tireless, on the job and as a political leader, but with politicians such as Scott Walker, Ledbetter’s pursuit of justice is once again in danger. We must join her and insure that the Scott Walkers of the political arena do not prevail.

Equal pay for equal work is not a given in spite of this very advanced and wonderful democracy. Each one of us must be a responsible citizen to insure that justice prevails, and we should be grateful to those who have gone before and made it easier for the rest of us. Lilly Ledbetter was responsible to us and for us. Let us say thanks by taking up her cause and helping her triumph.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Feminist is NOT a Pejorative Term

During a recent segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, I heard a caller assert that young women are reluctant to call themselves feminists. She suggested that the word has become attached to Blue States, the left, liberals, and to groups and ideas advanced by the Democratic party. It’s not much of a stretch then to link feminist and radical because left and liberal are synonyms for radical in some circles. I think that’s a shame; I think women young and old should be proud to call themselves feminists. Here’s why.

The word feminist describes someone who advocates for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. Feminism is women helping women, insuring that opportunities for excellence and independence are available so that every woman may achieve her dreams no matter how they differ from one another.

First, feminists advocate for social equality, a noble pursuit, wouldn’t you agree? They seek to insure that when people interact with each other, they do so respectfully and mindfully. They hope that women will not be subjected to insult or injury when they travel to and from their homes and when they speak out in behalf of reproductive rights. Feminists want to be sure that women are not anyone’s prey or punching bag. They try to teach others that their daughters should never be expected to fetch coffee for the men in the room simply because she happens to be female unless, of course, she has chosen the role of hostess. Social niceties include offering and serving beverages to make others feel comfortable, but neither woman nor man is more suitable to being nice in this way. Similarly holding the door open for someone else is a social nicety, but women should not expect this courtesy unless they are willing to extend it to others who may need a helping hand.

Social interactions also include very controversial matters such as terminating a pregnancy or one’s own life. These matters become controversial because people do not agree about abortion and suicide any more than they are able to agree about what should be censored, when children are old enough to evaluate language and history, and what is right and wrong. Differences of opinion and passionate debates electrify these matters, transporting them from private, personal ones to cultural ones, and all sorts of factions vie for supremacy, for the right to define right and wrong and to limit individual choice. Let us, for the purpose of exploring the word feminism, agree to John Stuart Mill’s wisdom: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” Therefore, unless your choice and decision deprives me of my choice, then you and I may choose according to our consciences. I hope every feminist would agree.

Feminists also advocate for political equality. Early feminists, at home managing the farms and estates in their husbands’ absences, begged those men to include women in the new government. In fact, in 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her beloved John, saying “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

Mrs. Adams matured during an era when women were treated as adornments, something their husbands could admire and enjoy. Indeed, during Mrs. Adams’ day, females were often not taught to read or write because the general sentiment was that they did not possess the intellect required to learn anything but the most basic lessons. Yet, Mrs. Adams and countless others made reasoned, impassioned arguments for equality even as men made reasoned, impassioned arguments for a democratic republic.

As you know, women were excluded from the original Constitution; they did not achieve the vote until 1920, fewer than 100 years ago, making the 19th amendment just a toddler in the greater scheme of rights in this nation. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott kicked off the suffrage movement at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, but only one woman present at that convention was still living when the nation amended the Constitution. Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt were among the twentieth century women who wrote, protested, and spoke in behalf of women and the vote. Surely, we are grateful for their feminism because we now have the right to vote and consequently play an important role in deciding the political direction for the country.

In addition, women now run for political office, winning every office except those in the highest executive branch. We have yet to elect a woman as president or vice-president in either major political party.

Insuring a woman’s legal right to vote is just one of many legal advancements for which feminists work. When men or women break the social contract, there are now many legal remedies, including the right to seek redress for unequal pay if both the man and the woman performing the job have equal experience and skill. Public schools, colleges, and universities may no longer reserve all their space and money for men-only sports. Women can buy, sell, and inherit property without a father or husband’s approval. Women can volunteer for service in the military. Women can also insist upon being safe from sexual exploitation through legal measures. The feminists have pressed these matters before the public and brought about significant change, nudging our attitudes and interactions toward a more equitable and safe world.

Feminists also helped the economy of women by raising our social consciousnesses and insuring legal equity. They argued for equal pay for equal work, and the nation found that the idea had merit. Even though women still lag behind men in earning power, they have legal redress through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts, especially after Lily Ledbetter refused to give up when the courts turned her aside. An Executive Order in 2009, during the Obama administration, extended a woman's right to file a complaint with the EEOC.

Feminists have also shown us the way. Some powerful, successful women still take time away from their careers in order to raise their children; others try to juggle everything--the career, the children, the home, and marriage, and they have our respect for having such strength. Single women are no longer labeled as spinsters or old maids; they have a respectable slice of the American pie at every age, and single mothers and fathers have our sympathy for theirs is an exhausting road, but one oft traveled.

Ladies, girls, and women, let us not avoid calling ourselves feminists for feminism is an old and honorable label. It simply describes someone who tries to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Aesop's Scorpion and Frog: A Cautionary Tale for These Times and a War on Women

I often think of Aesop’s fable about the scorpion and the frog. You remember it, don’t you? The scorpion needs to cross a body of water and appeals to a frog with the good sense to wonder if it should help a scorpion, but the scorpion reassures the frog, vowing that it will not harm its good Samaritan because if it does, they will both drown.

Thus persuaded, the frog lets the scorpion climb aboard and begins to swim to the opposite shore. Before they are safe, however, the scorpion stings the frog whose last word, before he slips underwater, is “Why?” The scorpion answers, “It’s my nature.” The lesson then is that frogs should beware of scorpions even if they promise not to harm you. A scorpion is a scorpion; its nature has been proved throughout history.

Recent events have brought this fable to mind almost daily. Some of the very people protesting in Wisconsin surely helped elect Scott Walker as their governor. Did they ignore his record or just convince themselves that his nature would not harm them?

Prior to becoming governor, in his role as Assemblyman and later as County Executive, Walker worked to privatize government services and reform the laws governing labor disputes between government and workers. He was also pro-life and supported legislation to protect pharmacists who did not wish to fill certain prescriptions if doing so violated their religious convictions. He was the state’s choice for governor until his platform stung.

I suspect that social issues masked the economic ones in many voters’ minds. Indeed, many voters confess to being single-issue voters, preferring to hand over power to men and women whom they deem to be of like minds morally and spiritually rather than to men and women who set civil liberties and the needs of all as their highest priorities. In Wisconsin, this proved problematic.

Union workers who had praised Walker now found themselves disenfranchised, unable to affect their wages and working conditions through collective bargaining. In time, they began to collect signatures for a recall ballot, and it seems on track for May 2012. Some, however, believe a “do-over” in democracy is as toxic as the scorpion’s sting was to the frog. These believers are trying to rewrite the rules for recall in the midst of a recall battle.

I simply ask: did the governor’s nature change quite suddenly, or did voters fail to take note of his stinger until they began drowning? I think it’s a question worth asking and answering for yourselves. Then, ask this one: what is in the best interest of the greatest number of people? Surely that is what we ask of government: to serve the many, not the few, with all the divisiveness, debate, and drama that this may incite.

Another event that made me think about scorpions and frogs was Rush Limbaugh’s sustained ad hominem attack against Ms. Sandra Fluke, but it has been Mr. Limbaugh’s nature for many years to insult women: First Ladies, Secretaries of State, and the philosophy of women as co-equals, fully qualified to compete, fully deserving of equal pay for equal effort. He is a man who changes his voice to lisp or imitate exaggerated stereotypes in order to enhance the vitriol he spews. He has called women of power and intelligence “Feminazis” since his program first aired. He has consistently belittled women.

Why then are sponsors, citizens, and radio stations now aggrieved? Limbaugh’s stinger was in full view. Why weren’t those sponsors and stations sensitive to women and their issues before now?

Some answers are obvious, of course. Rush never before picked on a young, convicted woman who is not already a celebrity or public figure. Ms. Fluke was unaccustomed to a national spotlight and public censure for having an opinion. She merely wished to speak in behalf of all women regarding health care for women, and for offering her point of view, she was demeaned, mocked, and stung. Almost no one believes she deserved any of it.

What saddens me is that some women think she did. Phyllis Schlafly did as did Patricia Heaton, the actress who played Ray Romano’s feisty wife for many years on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She tweeted with as much rancor as Limbaugh and offended both genders, only later to apologize for her judgment. What seems so ironic is that her current TV character in “The Middle” is a harried, good-hearted, very middle class mom who would have come to the defense of her awkward daughter if she had been hurt or denigrated by someone. We’ve since learned that the real Heaton might not.

Let us give Ms. Fluke credit for initiating a backlash against vitriolic talk radio. Let us hope that the sponsors and radio stations do not return to his fold after a brief and very public suspension, only to renew negotiations after public attention turns to chase another noble or ignoble human. Let us try to be vigilant and above all, civil in our appeals to those sponsors and radio stations because it is our duty to speak in behalf of those downtrodden. Let us beware of stingers when examining those who submit themselves for public review as office holders, but let us not turn on each other.

As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” If we fail, we are no better than any other scorpion. Let’s be frogs instead: the Good Samaritans and our sisters’ keepers.