Equal Pay Day

April 17 is Equal Pay Day, and I will be speaking at Tulane, signing copies of Grace and Grit in the same building where, many years ago, I took my first women’s studies course. Funny how life comes full circle. As a young college student, I learned about social injustice; I learned how and why women have been devalued throughout history; and I was given the language and confidence to find my own feminist voice.

Since graduating from college in the late eighties, women have clearly had more choices than, say, my mother had when she graduated from Newcomb College of Tulane University in 1954, or Lilly Ledbetter faced a couple of years later when she wanted to go to college. When Lilly was a senior in high school, a professor from the local teacher’s college in Jacksonville, Alabama, encouraged her to take a college math course.  Lilly’s family didn’t have the money to afford college, and college simply wasn’t a normal consideration for a young woman at the time. Lilly took home economics instead.

Obviously, we live in a world with far more choices for women. But the other day when a reporter from the Huffington Post asked Mitt Romney if he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, he hedged, and his is six second pause has ignited a firestorm in the media. What amazes me is that fifty years after the civil rights movement and second wave feminism, we are fighting many of the same battles that we thought we’d already won. Just last week Governor Scott Walter quote “quietly” repealed the Equal Pay law in Wisconsin.

In 1963 when the Equal Pay Act was passed, women earned 59 cents for every dollar a man earned. That means that in the past fifty years we have made gains averaging half a cent per year. Really? Can you believe this?

That means today we earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. For women of color, the wage gap is even worse.  It seems to me that if pay discrimination were a disease, it would be like hypertension, a silent killer. Every day millions of women across America are underpaid simply because they are women, and their families suffer as a result.

This wage gap translates into a significant loss for women and their families, a loss of approximately $11,000 dollars in annual income compared to men. According to the Wage Project, for a high school graduate that means she will lose $700,000 over a working lifetime (47 years of full time work). For a college graduate that means $1.2 million dollars, and for a professional school graduate the wage gap is $2 million dollars.

For Lilly, her loss totaled over $200,000 dollars, not including her social security, retirement and overtime. I don’t think we can calculate what spending all of her savings and dedicating 11 years of her life to fighting a legal battle costs.

There are millions of working women in America. Two thirds of mothers bring home at least a quarter of their families earning, and in many cases, women are the sole breadwinners. Whether it’s Wal-Mart or Wall Street, Lilly’s story is every woman’s story. Something to ponder as we take a minute to think about the meaning of Equal Pay Day in America.

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