Lilly’s Legacy

As published in B Metro magazine, excerpted from The A-List

On the way home from school, my daughter Frances tells me about the most important moments of her day. One afternoon as we were driving down the road, Frances piped up from the backseat that her class had played football in gym that day. Then in an indignant voice she told me that the coach gave the boys the regular leather footballs and the girls the soft Nerf footballs. “It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s like what happened to Lilly.” “Well, not exactly,” I thought. Curious how much a third grader, who’d been living and breathing Lilly’s story for two years as I wrote it, really understood, I asked, “What do you mean?” “It’s the same thing. Just because she was a girl, she was treated different. They didn’t pay her the same, and just because we’re girls, they gave us the Nerf footballs, the soft footballs.”

I smiled to myself and kept driving. Thanks to Lilly, the most fearless and determined individual I’ve ever known or will know, when Frances begins working she will have legal recourse if she’s discriminated against in the workplace. By standing up for what’s right, Lilly fought a battle for pay equity women thought was already won. Even when the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly saying she should have known about her first discriminatory paycheck early in her almost 20-year career, she didn’t give up the fight. She campaigned Congress for two years to restore the law, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to its original intent. Lilly’s acts of courage started with smaller feats. As a child, she yearned for something better. When she was a young mother, she stepped out of the prescriptive role for women in the Post-War South by working outside the home, at the time an act of courage we can’t underestimate. She was still seeking a better life when, in 1979, she applied for the managerial position at Goodyear. Two decades later at the end of her career, her dream for a better life shattered, she was determined to fight back. Her determination carried her through a legal battle she had no way of knowing would deplete her retirement, last almost a decade, and culminate in the passing of a bill bearing her name.

Throughout her life, Lilly has exemplified the complex meaning of strength. She possessed the physical stamina required to endure the grueling demands of a tire factory most of her life; the mental toughness to withstand brutal harassment that resulted in people following her home at night and someone cutting her brake line; the conviction to withstand a legal challenge against a multi-billion dollar corporation year after year; the tenacity to keep campaigning for the passage of the bill while her husband was terminally ill; and the emotional depth to become vulnerable, after all those years of being invulnerable, when she told me her story. It took months before Lilly trusted me. One winter afternoon when we’d been driving around Possum Trot, looking at her childhood home and her grandfather’s farm, we’d stopped at the small family cemetery. Standing in the cold on her grandfather’s grave next to an old oak, squinting her eyes as she looked across the cemetery to the bare brown trees scattered on the ridge, she mentioned as casually as if she were commenting on the chilly weather, “You know, Tot tried to kill my dog once, but Mama backed him down with a butcher knife.” That’s all she said. I didn’t press. That’s how we worked from then on. She gave me a glimpse, a tiny glimmer, the actual facts of the matter as we continued our conversations over days and weeks and months. Lilly’s life story, her defeats and her victory with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009, remind us that the only true security women have is to do as Lilly has done: stand up for themselves —their daughters—for what’s right. Even then, the job is never finished. To this day Lilly travels and speaks to audiences about pay equity and what still needs to be accomplished with the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Now when Frances hops in the car and tells me about an unfair situation she faced during her school day, I look at her and ask: “What would Lilly do?”

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