Lilly Ledbetter, Obama, and Women: Is the Act Being Overused?

What Women Really Think
May 15 2012 4:36 PM

Campaign Love Notes: The Ballad of Lilly Ledbetter

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Barack Obama hugs Lilly Ledbetter after signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Remember Lilly Ledbetter, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. manager who sued her employer for unequal pay after 19 years of work only to have her claim denied under a statute of limitations? Well if you don’t, President Obama will be happy to remind you.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

According to Bloomberg, Obama mentioned Ledbetter and her namesake piece of legislation in eight of his last 18 campaign events before May 13, and his invocation of the act at yesterday’s Barnard College commencement adds another tick mark to the list. The president is understandably deploying Ledbetter in his attempt to court women (she is an awesome lady), but is his constant touting of the 2009 Ledbetter Act a touch overblown?  

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After all, the legislation doesn’t end unequal pay, but merely extends the time frame in which an employee could file suit for such discrimination. In fact, Bloomberg reports that in 2010, women were only receiving 77.4 percent of the salary paid to professionally equal men, which is actually down a few decimal points from pre-recession numbers. As Ledbetter herself has pointed out, women are still only pocketing 77 cents to a man’s dollar.

Intent: As Obama’s first piece of legislation after taking office, the Ledbetter Act definitely demonstrates his commitment to women’s issues, making it a fine and fair campaign tool. But one wonders if the confusion between “helping” to end pay inequality by adjusting a legal technicality and ending it outright isn’t somewhat by design.  

Execution: While the campaign’s promotion of Ledbetter is a great way to remind voters that the president is committed to the issue of equal pay, I’m beginning to wonder if the act itself should take such a high-profile position. It might be better to highlight the administration’s work on issues the measure didn’t solve—like the opacity of pay scales in many companies. That would raise more comprehensive awareness of the issue and give Mrs. Ledbetter a break.

Relatability: All of that being said, I'lll admit that fair pay and the Ledbetter Act are good material for Obama. The message hits close to home and the solution doesn’t seem as intractable as other messier social issues. I suspect even some moderate-to-right-leaning women resonate with this particular accomplishment, so I guess you can count me smitten. 

Swoon Factor: 8

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