It’s called a Rosa Parks moment. It’s that instant, an epiphany almost, when a person realizes that they’ve taken all they intend to take, that they’re at the point where they will not, cannot back down. It’s that juncture where average, everyday people become extraordinary. And sometimes they make history.
The moment’s namesake, for the benefit of the culturally illiterate, was the Montgomery, Ala., seamstress who lived under the oppressive laws of Jim Crow until one evening in 1955 when she refused to relinquish her seat on a public bus to a white rider. Thus began the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Parks was the first woman, the first nongovernment official and first African-American to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.
If any good at all has come from this election season’s divisive back and forth, it’s that we’ve had the chance to learn of Rosa Parks moments that will probably be included in our grandchildren’s history books.
Take, for example, Lilly Ledbetter.
All too often when I hear elongated Southern syllables on television, the program involves Honey Boo Boo or the folks at Lizard Lick Towing. So in September, my ears perked up when, from the next room, I caught the unmistakable twang of north Alabama.
At the Democratic National Convention’s podium was a blue collar grandmother from Jacksonville, Ala., telling her story.
For almost 20 years, Ledbetter worked as a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant in Gadsden. She was one of only a few women in that position and had received consistently high performance ratings.
Her Rosa Parks moment hit her like a punch in the gut when someone left an anonymous note telling her that she was being paid as much as 30 percent less than men with the same seniority, doing the same job.
She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which led to a retaliatory demotion. At that point, she retired earlier than she had planned and sued Goodyear. A jury awarded Ledbetter about $3.3 million, but the amount was later reduced to around $300,000. Subsequently, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Ledbetter was not entitled to compensation because she filed her claim more than 180 days after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck.
Apparently those five majority justices have never worked in a situation where salary discussion is forbidden under threat of termination. So even though Ledbetter didn’t know of the disparity for almost 20 years, she was denied the right to sue.
This vote led Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a bit of a Rosa Parks moment of her own. It a dissenting opinion read from the bench rather than simply published, as is the norm, she said: “The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view. Employers may keep under wraps the pay differentials maintained among supervisors, no less the reasons for those differentials.”
In her opinion she described the Court’s reading of the law as “parsimonious” and added: “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” The justice’s spirited dissent encouraged Ledbetter to continue to work to change the law that had led to her defeat.
Even though it would not change her situation, Ledbetter worked tirelessly for passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was passed in 2009. The name of the bill is somewhat misleading. It doesn’t somehow magically insure fair pay; it simply amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stating that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new paycheck affected by that discriminatory action. It’s a start.
In a speech in Charlotte earlier this week, she addressed present day pay disparities in which women statistically earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn: “Maybe 23 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account, Cayman Island Investments and an IRA worth tens of millions of dollars. But Gov. (Mitt) Romney, when we lose 23 cents every hour, every day, every paycheck, every job, over our entire lives, what we lose can’t just be measured in dollars.”
Lilly Ledbetter’s Rosa Parks moment isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.