Picking cotton and corn were a way of life for her, and her family, as they struggled to make ends meet. When the 1950’s rolled in, although her family was among the first in their area to have a TV, Ms. Ledbetter wanted access to the American Dream. Excelling in school was a natural for her, having been instilled to a life of hard work at an early age. But, without money, Jacksonville State, just 8 miles down the road, was out of the question. So, as was customary at the time, she got married. With the arrival of two children, life should have been complete. But, her narrow and restricted life drove her to want more. Eventually, after working at General Electric; where she made filaments for bulbs; she landed a job at the very University where she had wanted to study. She even took courses in her spare time. But money remained an obstacle to be overcome, month by month. And that’s what brought her to Goodyear. With a hard work ethic and a desire to succeed; that’s what all it would take to win the dream, right? Not really.
Although Goodyear had many women working in their plants during the Second World War, by the time Ms. Ledbetter arrived, there were only a handful of women working among the thousands of men at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama. This was around 1979, and though many things were changing for women, many doors were, and still are, shuttered for them. The author does an excellent job in describing the harassment endured by women in the more industrialized jobs at that time. The Unions were largely unsympathetic to the problems faced by their female members. Ms. Ledbetter describes in detail some of the more blatant abuses suffered by the women who dared to work there. One of these involved the threat of being “picked”, which is a practice in which the other men would strip, and then pluck the pubic hairs of a fellow employee. This was something that had been done to men in the past, and they were supposed to just endure it. It was like a rite of passage. When some of the women are threatened in this manner one brave woman simply dropped her pants and dared them to do it. No one ever bothered her again.
Throughout the book, Ms. Ledbetter does a wonderful job of relating the unique challenges suffered by all true trailblazers. And as she forges ahead, she also is busy raising her 2 children, while dealing with a loving, but unsympathetic husband. Mired; as he is; in his belief in the Bible, he wants his wife to be an appendage to him. This does nothing for her self-esteem. Added to this mix is the illness of her son, Phillip, who suffered from chronic allergies requiring health care which was simply not affordable. Eventually she brings her son to a very sympathetic woman pediatrician who helps her navigate through some of these difficulties.
But by far the most important, and far reaching decision she would make, involved working at Goodyear. There was no way around it, the Goodyear plant, with its higher than average wages, was the logical choice. Against the wishes of her husband, she applies for work at, and is hired by Goodyear. And, ironically; in her quest to better herself and help her family; this is where her struggles really begin.
One morning, after arriving at work, she finds a slip of paper in her mail at work. This piece of paper lists the salaries of the men and women who are doing the same work, the only difference being that the men are being paid a lot more. After working at the plant for 19 years she was stunned to learn of the disparity in pay being doled out to the women. And, as a female area manager, she was a valued employee. This was like rubbing sand in the wound. She was rewarded with the promotions for her excellent work, but denied the financial reward of all her efforts.
With the salaries so skewed; she was making $44,724 per year versus $59,028 for the same work being done by men; Ms. Ledbetter sought the counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their investigation would take some time, while she continued to work at the plant knowing how underpaid she was. Just reading this part of the book had me seething. I cannot imagine how she endured the next few years while waiting for the EEOC to finish its investigation, and prepare for a trial.
Through layoffs, and continued harassment, the author finally makes it to the trial in January of 2003, which took place in the Anniston County Courthouse. The trial was a farce, with Goodyear’s lawyers attempting to make her look like a fool. They had picked the wrong woman for such tactics. After all she had been through; they should have realized that she wasn’t going to be intimidated.