Why Is Lilly Ledbetter So Important?

Towards the end of the 2012 campaign, the candidates’ views on women’s issues became an increasingly prominent point of debate.  In an effort largely contributed to by democrats, the future of women’s rights become hotly contested.  Democrats touted Obama’s accomplishments in advocating for women’s issues while calling out Mitt Romney on his apparent lack of consideration or knowledge of them.  A significant point raised again and again by Obama’s campaign was that Romney seemed unable or unwilling to answer a simple question: Do you support equal pay for equal work?

Though this focus on women’s issues seems to have come about after the second presidential debate, this particular question has plagued Romney throughout the campaign.  When asked in April if he supported the Lilly Ledbetter act, his response was a disappointing “We’ll get back to you”.  Even after taking time to consider the question, the calculated answer to the campaign was that Romney was not looking to change the law. He didn’t answer as to whether he supports it, or if he would have signed it if he had been president, he merely said that he wasn’t interested in messing with it.

Obama, on the other hand, has never hesitated in his support of the Ledbetter act.  In his “Romnesia” speech, he went to great lengths to explain how equal pay is a no brainer and anyone with common sense should support it.  The democrats used Romney’s reticence on the topic completely against him. They painted him as a fifties era throwback who honestly believed women were happiest in the home caring for their families; that they were unconcerned with pay and grateful merely for a job.  Granted, Romney did a lot to help them create this image, but is it really an accurate picture of the candidate and his views?

In answering this question, it might be helpful to understand more about the Lilly Ledbetter Act itself.  This was the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama, and its biggest achievement is removing the 180 day limitation on filing complaints for pay discrimination.  Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at a Goodyear plant and only found out shortly before her retirement- after years of building a career at this company- that she was paid grossly less than her male counterparts.  When she sued Goodyear over this, she eventually lost her case because it had taken her so long to file her complaint.  Surely Ledbetter would have filed a complaint sooner had she known about the discrepancy, but under the law at that time, she had no case.  Her appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it again lost.  In the minority of the vote was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who appealed to Congress to amend the law to give women like Ledbetter better opportunity to seek compensation in situation such as this.  The democrats took the lead on this and Obama signed the law in 2009.

The vote for this law was clearly split along party lines, with almost no republicans supporting it.  Among  republican complaints was the fear that women would use the removal of limitations to wait out employers that were discriminating against them and seek justice with the next administration.  Republicans worried that employers who were not responsible for discrimination would end up paying for their predecessor’s mistakes. At one point, campaign leaders said that Romney was in the majority of republicans who opposed the bill, but later amended their statements to say that he had “never weighed in” on it.

While it was easy to demonize Romney as a bumbling neanderthal with no understanding for women or what is important to them, I think it’s important to understand that in the constraints of the campaign he was attempting to meet the expectations of a much larger group of party officials and high stakes donors and that those expectation dictated every response he made during the campaign.  “Do you support equal pay for women?” may seem like a no brainer when you are answering for yourself, but it becomes a loaded question when you put it in the context of a political campaign. A simple yes answer to this question would have been tantamount to to supporting the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which would have been directly disagreeing- in a very public way- with the majority of his party.  It was easy for Obama to be decisive on this question because his party championed the bill and was on the “no-brainer” side of the answer.  Were the roles reversed, I doubt Obama you have spoken as confidently about protecting employer rights.

I believe the problem here is not women’s rights, or equal pay, or political correctness. The vast majority of American men agree that women should be fairly compensated for their work.  Whether women should receive equal pay is a no brainer.  Obama was right in his speech at GMU, no father actually wants his daughter paid less than a man for the same work.  The problem here really comes down to a political system that is so polarized that it turns every important issue into a dichotomy.  There is a party line on every point of debate, and to stray from it is to be ostracized from the whole. We know that this cannot actually be the case.  There are far more than just two sides to any issue. It’s just as ridiculous for democrats to think that some women won’t exploit the Ledbetter act as it is for republicans to think that all women will.  Bitter party politics have made it so that little meaningful discussion can happen and that is bad for everyone, women included.

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