Lilly Ledbetter is about half Barack Obama's height, but she makes up in determination what she lacks in stature. This was clear when the president stooped to embrace her yesterday after signing his first bill into law, a landmark piece of equal pay legislation which has been named after her.
Now 70 and from rural Alabama, Ms Ledbetter is a former employee at a Goodyear tyre plant, where she was a supervisor. For nearly two decades, from 1979 until she retired in 1998, Ms Ledbetter was one of the few women area managers. At first, her pay was in line with men in the same job. Then, she discovered, it started to slip.
"I just could not believe that they would separate the female pay so far down the line from my male peers," she said at the time. "I was shocked when my attorneys accumulated all the information, and I saw how low [my pay] was."
After discovering the pay difference, she filed a lawsuit and a jury found her to be the victim of discrimination. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against her in 2007, reversing what many saw as years of precedent on equal pay. The Supreme Court judges decided that she took her action too late to collect damages, ruling that discrimination claims had to be filed within 180 days of the first offence.
Ms Ledbetter became a cause celebre in the campaign for equal pay and Congress, now dominated by Democrats, this week approved a law relaxing the deadlines for filing such suits thus making it easier for women to challenge employers they suspect are in breach of equal pay laws.
Under the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, each unequal salary cheque triggers a new 180-day statute of limitations.
Mr Obama said that signing the bill sent a clear message: "Making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody, that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces."
Ms Ledbetter said she would never see "a cent" of the money she missed out on from her old employer. "But with the passage [of the law] and the president's signature today, I have an even richer reward. I know that my daughters and granddaughters, and your daughters and your granddaughters, will have abetter deal."Reuse content