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A revolution won with the stroke of a pen

The Baltimore Sun

In April, after the Senate, buckling under the threat of a presidential veto, failed to pass a law that would close a loophole and allow women to sue for equal pay, an outraged Sen. Barbara Mikulski took the floor to speak.

"Many people have been mesmerized by the John Adams miniseries," said the Maryland Democrat. "I like John Adams, but I really like Abigail.

"While John Adams was down in Philadelphia writing the Declaration of Independence and laying the groundwork for the Constitution and inventing America, Abigail Adams wrote her husband from the farm - while raising the four children and keeping the family going.

"She said: 'As you write those documents, do not forget the ladies, for we will foment a revolution of our own.'

"I stand here today to say: Do not forget the ladies because we will foment a revolution of our own."

That revolution was won with a stroke of a pen last week when Barack Obama signed his first piece of legislation as president, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

It essentially overturns a Supreme Court decision that women must seek redress of unequal pay within six months of the first time a company paid a man more for doing the same job.

Lilly Ledbetter hadn't known the guys were getting more money until someone slipped her a pay scale near the end of her 19 years at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Alabama. A lower court found in her favor, but the Supreme Court said she had filed suit too late.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the unusual step of reading her dissent from the bench. "In our view, the Court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination," she said.

Lower courts used that 2007 Supreme Court ruling to curtail the civil rights of other Americans who failed to complain in a timely fashion of age, race or sex discrimination. This law fixes that.

Obama had taken up Lilly Ledbetter's cause on the campaign trail and she has become a great friend of the family, taking part in campaign ads, riding the train from Philadelphia to Washington on the whistle-stop tour, and dancing with the president at one of the inaugural balls.

She will get nothing out of this - she estimates she lost $200,000 in wages and more in pension benefits and Social Security - except the satisfaction of knowing that she has helped fix a system that would have taken money out of the pockets of daughters and granddaughters to come.

"President Obama told us he wanted this to be one of the first pieces of legislation he signed," said Mikulski in a telephone interview. She re-introduced the bill - the ailing Ted Kennedy had been the original sponsor but had asked her to take over - and shepherded it to passage with 61 votes.

Mikulski took to the stump this summer to echo Obama's campaign call for equal pay for equal work.

"Call to arms, women of America," said Mikulski at a rally last summer. "Put your lipstick on, square your shoulders, suit up. We have a hell of a fight coming, but, boy, are we ready. The revolution starts tonight."

Mikulski says employers who pay women less for the same work - counting on the culture of secrecy when it comes to salary talk - were motivated by greed.

"They made money off of us in the paycheck," she said in an interview. "But they also reduced their contributions to our pensions and our 401(k)s."

When Obama signed the bill before an enthusiastic crowd of women and labor leaders in the East Room last week, he gave the first pen to Mikulski and the second pen to Lilly Ledbetter, now 70, retired and recently widowed. Hers had been a 10-year battle.

Afterward, Michelle Obama held a State Dining Room reception for the 150 who attended the bill signing, her first official event and a strong signal that she will follow through on her pledge to champion the cause of working families.

"This is not a women's issue," the president said in his remarks. "This is a family issue."

What I don't understand is why it is still an issue.

Women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, a figure that hasn't improved in decades, despite the fact that women now outnumber men in colleges and universities and have been working outside the home for a generation.

Those men who wanted to pay us less 30 years ago - because we were going to get married and quit or have babies and quit or because we would always have a husband to pay our bills - are gone now, replaced by a new generation of bosses who have daughters who work and wives who work.

What would they think if the women in their lives were so unfairly compensated for their work? Wouldn't they be outraged?

"I don't pretend to understand the psyches of these men," said Mikulski with a sigh of exasperation. "I think it all comes back to the money."

So many young women eschew the tag of "feminist," either because they think it means anti-male, anti-child or anti-family, or because they believe the battles have all been won, that the feminist call for equal pay and equal rights is as outdated as love beads and fringed moccasins.

Lilly Ledbetter's story proves that, 30 years later, we are still fighting those same battles.

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