This column about women’s issues is written for men. Of course, it would have to be, because I’m a man and know nothing about women’s issues.
That knowledge, at least, puts me ahead of a friend who serves in the Maine House of Representatives, a man who enjoys and participates in many House debates, and who felt compelled this past session to speak about a number of women’s issues.
His comments were off base and widely criticized. I advised him to stay out of such debates, because he couldn’t possibly understand the issues, and he certainly would never win a debate about them. Having given that advice, I tiptoe into this column with caution.
Let’s begin with Lilly Ledbetter, 74, of Jacksonville, Ala., who delivered an inspiring keynote speech in early June to the young women college students participating in the Maine NEW Leadership Program. A video of Ledbetter’s speech can be seen on Vimeo.
After you watch the video, I encourage you to read Lilly’s autobiography, “Grace and Grit,” published in 2012 by Crown Publishing Group.
Ledbetter’s story should upset and infuriate everyone. For 20 years, she was harassed — sexually and in every other way — by the men who supervised and worked for her at Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
And just before she retired, Ledbetter discovered she’d been paid far less than men in similar positions — for her entire career. Specifically, she’d lost more than $300,000, the difference between a comfortable life for her family and the constant struggle they endured.
Ledbetter’s book is plainly written, presenting a disturbing and distressing story that should be required reading — for men. Shame on us!
An incredibly strong woman, Ledbetter filed a complaint about her pay with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1998. She initially won her case and an award exceeding $3 million, but she never received a penny.
Nine years later, by a one-vote margin, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter had filed her claim too late. The five justices ruled that employees had to file their complaints about wage discrimination within 180 days of its first occurrence or the company could legally discriminate forever after.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”
Eventually, Congress fixed this, enacting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act — too late for Ledbetter, who became a national celebrity and inspirational speaker — but not too late for the young women she addressed at the Maine NEW Leadership dinner.
In 2008, The Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center was selected to become the 17th member of a national network of Development Partners in the National Education for Women Leadership program, initiated in 1991 by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Since then, 78 students from 24 different educational institutions have graduated from one of the program’s three summer institutes, co-directed by former Sen. Mary Cathcart and (I am very proud to report) my daughter, Rebekah Smith.
Information about the program can be found at http://mcspolicycenter. umaine.edu/55-2/maine-new-leadership/.
The six-day residential leadership training program is free for selected undergraduate college women to teach and inspire them to become the next generation of women community, civic and political leaders — and specifically to address the historic and contemporary under-representation of women in politics.
The three specific goals of the program are: educate, engage, empower. The 41 women on the Maine NEW Leadership Advisory Board are outstanding leaders, each of whom is making Maine a better place for all of us.
Looking over the program’s informational material, I learn that, “research suggests that women are less likely than men to consider themselves qualified to run for office or to be encouraged to run for office. Therefore, access to role models and mentors, as well as the skill-building opportunities and encouragement provided by Maine NEW Leadership, are crucial because of the positive impact they can have on women’s political interest.”
Cathcart, Rebekah and program coordinator Eve McLaughlin organize a fantastic interactive program for these young women, including visits to the Legislature and discussions with many of Maine’s outstanding female leaders.
I’m sure they all were inspired by Ledbetter and are determined to continue her battle, recognizing that women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same work.
And that, my friends, is both a women’s and a men’s issue.