Fighting for Pay Equity: A Q&A with Lilly Ledbetter and the Filmmaker Telling Her Story
Via Ms. Magazine |
“If you’re a person, woman or otherwise, anywhere in the world, and you are being othered or beat down or minimized or excluded or cheated or harassed, you are a Lilly.”
—Rachel Feldman, director of upcoming feature film ‘Lilly,’ a political thriller based on the remarkable life of fair pay icon Lilly Ledbetter.
Written By Aviva Dove-Viebahn
When Lilly Ledbetter, a longtime area manager at Goodyear, discovered that her salary over her then-18-year career was significantly lower than that of her male colleagues, she took the company to court with the help of her attorney, Jon Goldfarb. Her suit charged Goodyear with gender-based pay discrimination, violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The result was a 10-year legal battle, taking her all the way to the Supreme Court in the landmark case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Much to the dismay of champions for gender equality and pay equity, Lilly’s case was overturned by a 5-4 vote, and she was denied compensation based on a technicality in Title VII that restricted claims of discrimination to a 180-day period.
However, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asserted in her famous dissenting opinion, holding Ledbetter’s case to the time limit was disingenuous—pay discrimination often happens incrementally over time and a company’s policy to hide salaries from its employees makes comparisons difficult. At the end of her dissent, Justice Ginsburg implored Congress to act: “The ball is in Congress’s court … to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.”
For her part, Lilly took to lobbying in the halls of Congress, her hard work finally paying off when President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 into law as his first official act.
What follows is an interview with Ledbetter and Feldman about their exciting project, one they hope will bring further light to the injustices of pay discrimination and inspire all of us to follow in Lilly’s footsteps challenging biases and righting wrongs.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn: Let’s start by talking about how this partnership came about. Rachel, what was it about Lilly’s story that spoke to you and made you want to make this into a feature film? And Lilly, why did you choose to trust Rachel with your story?
Lilly Ledbetter: Our relationship started with Rachel, in that the lawyer who won my case, Jon Goldfarb—Rachel had gone through him trying to reach me. Jon called and he said, “Look, you need to talk to this lady. She is really dedicated. I like what she says. I like her sound. She’s got it.” So, we talked to Rachel, and the rest is history.
Rachel and I have been together for a long time, but I knew a lawsuit wouldn’t be solved in a year or two. I knew it’d take a long time. I know movies take a long time. The main thing I have wished for all along is that it would happen in my lifetime. It looks like Rachel’s made that happen.
Rachel Feldman: A little backstory first. I am a director who’s been working in Hollywood since my late 20s. That makes me a 40-year Hollywood veteran who spent many of those years just pushing the Sisyphean rock up the mountain with very little traction. And it was not personal; it had nothing to do with me personally, or my talents, or my abilities. It just had to do with my sex. All the other women that I knew through the Directors Guild of America and other professional associations were going through the exact same experiences.
I became a vocal outspoken critic of the way Hollywood handles gender equity in film and television industry at a very early time. I come from a family of activists. I’m a second generation American, and my grandparents, before they could even speak English, were labor organizers. Where I come from, you speak out for justice. That’s just in my DNA.
So here I am watching the Democratic National Convention, and this woman comes out on stage. I had a visceral, phenomenal experience that I had to get to this woman. I had to tell her story. This story in so many ways overlaps with, not only my story and every other woman I knew in Hollywood, but also with every woman in America and every woman on the planet. That this one woman and her struggle exemplified the zeitgeist of what we were experiencing. Her story hits every point of narrative storytelling from a feminist mythology. And I just knew it was something extraordinary and something that I personally wanted, needed, to tell.
I reached out to her the very next day. You probably don’t remember, Lilly, but you said, “I don’t really talk to people, just go to my lawyer.” So, I went to Jon, and Jon and I hit it off. Not only had Jon gone to law school and was a well-known civil rights attorney, but he’d gone to film school. He was a film lover.
There are so many stories told, and I think ours is just one where I told the truth. I said, “I’m not a powerful person. I don’t have money. I don’t have Academy awards. I don’t have people breathing down my neck to make my next movie, but what I have is passion and what I will guarantee you is 24/7 doggedness, 365 days a year,” and, as it turns out, for eight years so far. It’s been an incredible journey. I have to say we were way ahead of our time eight years ago.
When I went out with the story, the conventional wisdom that I was hearing from people is, “We don’t want to make a movie with a female protagonist.” “We don’t want to make a political movie.” “Any movie with a female lead over 50 is never going to get made.”
I just kept saying, “Bullshit.” Bullshit.” “Bullshit.” “No.” “No, you’re wrong and I’m going to prove you wrong.” But we were early. In these last eight years, there’s been such a drastic change in the gender equity consciousness, that we are finally in a sweet spot.
Dove-Viebahn: Lilly, how you’ve experienced the last eight years, particularly the process of film development. What is your relationship to the film?
Ledbetter: I had a strong faith that this movie would be made. It needs to be made. It needs to be on record, not for Lilly Ledbetter, because I did all I could. I went all the way to the Supreme Court. I didn’t get a dime and neither did my attorneys, bless their hearts. They had taken my case on a contingency basis, which would give them 50 percent of what I got. Well, 50 percent of nothing is nothing. So, it’s been a long journey, but like Rachel said, Jon Goldfarb has been with me all the way.
When I went into the lawsuit, I warned my family. I would not give up. I said, “If I start, I’m in it. I’m it for the long haul, regardless of what comes.” And my family stuck it out with me, they were there for me.
A person has to have a strong faith. I think this movie will be made. When people see it, somebody in every showing will make a change in their life, because so many people have not realized how short-changed women and minorities have been for many, many years. And it doesn’t only affect today, but it’s the rest of your life. It’s your retirement, your social security.
Dove-Viebahn: I consider myself fairly well-read on women’s issues, but I didn’t even realize how much your case hinged on technicalities. That the majority justices were using it as a way to say, “We don’t want to have to deal with these types of cases.” I hope a film like this can bring those issues to light.
To turn that into a question: Rachel, how have you made decisions about what parts of the story to tell? Elsewhere, you’ve described the film as a political thriller, which I think is a very interesting way of framing it.
Feldman: It’s difficult adapting a real story, about a real person who did an important thing, into a form that is recognized generally in the fiction world. As a storyteller, I want to be responsible to Lilly and honor the work that she did and be truthful to her story. But there’s an architecture to storytelling, and requirements of each facet of storytelling, that need to be fulfilled.
There’s a beautiful book that Lilly wrote with her co-writer Lanier Scott Isom. It’s called Grace and Grit. Lilly and Lanier did a magnificent job telling Lilly’s story in a deeply emotional way. When I read the book, there was an overlay of the Southern part of the story and the beautiful arc of this girl who grew up in Alabama with very little, but who had a sense of herself, a confidence.
She was a good athlete. She was good in math. She was smart. She wanted to be a dancer. She wanted to be a lawyer. She had dreams. Lilly was on an interview the other day, and she was saying how in her childhood, there were no books in her house. There were no magazines in her house. There was no outside influence, and yet she had this magnificent vision.
She actually had a tough life. Not only were they poor, but the family dynamics were complicated and not easy on this child. And yet this girl finds true love with a magnificent man, builds a life, has children, is a good mother, and has ambition in great magnitude. Who told her she could have that kind of ambition?
The little girl in me said, “You have to make it. Yes, I like that little girl.” I want everybody in the world to be that little girl, and to know that, even without, you can become a great and magnificent thing. As Lilly said before, she didn’t get what she was fighting for for herself. Along the way, in her losses—dramatic, heartbreaking losses, like losing a husband and caring for him in the midst of all of this—she realized that she was fighting not only for herself, but for a community of workers and a community of women that transcended even America. It was a global issue.
I have fictionalized some aspects of the story. First of all, the bad guys, the antagonists, I don’t want to name names. I create a fictional CEO; I create a fictional senator; I create fictional actions that are going on behind the scenes that might very well have happened to Lilly, but she didn’t know about it. How could you know, if there are people who are devising nefarious schemes to scare you or get you off track? You don’t know who they are, what’s happening, but I needed to show them to the audience. The job of an adapter is to honor the truth and use fiction to amplify the themes of the story. I hope I have done that.
Dove-Viebahn: Lilly, you mentioned that when you started to pursue this case, you told your family, “I’m going to stick to this. I’m going to keep moving forward.” Did you have any inkling that this would be more than 20 years of your life? That this case was going to take on national importance or have wider implications?
Ledbetter: During my work and career, I always read all the newspapers. I read all the business magazines, trying to stay current and to get all the training so I could go into what had traditionally been a man’s job.
The reason I wanted a job at Goodyear was the fact that I read in the Business Week magazine at the time about the new Radial Tower Plant that had been built onto the Old Gadsden Plant in Gadsden, Alabama, that had been there since 1929. I wanted a job at Goodyear because I knew radial tires were the way of the future.
I was really humiliated, embarrassed and disappointed that I had chosen a company who was, at the time I went to work for them, number one tire manufacturer in the world, but yet they were treating me like this. I was told when I went to work, you can never discuss your pay. If you do, you will not have a job. And no one ever discussed the pay.
They had government contracts from the time I went to work. So, I thought, surely, they were being checked. They would have to adhere to federal rules and guidelines to have those contracts. But, to my sorrow, they did not. There was no enforcement. The law is only good if it’s enforced. People don’t volunteer and say, “Well, we’ll just pay everybody more.” They just don’t do that. We all have to have a little incentive to do the right thing.
It was not right. [The pay rate was so] different, I lost so much overtime money. It was not unusual for me to work two months straight, 12-hour shifts, without a night off. And my retirement today, my social security, all is too low. There’s not a thing I can do about it. That’s my goal in life now—to make sure that that doesn’t happen to you, or Rachel, or anybody else because it was not just me.
Dove-Viebahn: So, what do you hope this film will achieve?
Ledbetter: This is [happening] around the world. It’s not just here, it’s not just in the South, like I originally thought. It’s all over the United States. In some parts of the country it’s worse than others. And this is not right.
Women have been locked into situations where they were in positions, like I was. If they ask about their job, they wouldn’t have one. I’ve asked many women, “My goodness, if you knew you were paid so much less than the man, why did you go to the Equal Employment Commission?” Well, this is what would have happened: They would have been demoted or fired. They would either been unemployed or making about $50,000 less.
Men understand, too. When I was walking the halls of Congress, the lawyers, young lawyers, assistants to House and Senate people, they talked to me about their mothers working two jobs to send them to law school. I’m their mother. They know about it. They talk about their wives or daughters. It’s a family issue. That’s what Obama said when he signed the bill: This is a family issue; it’s not just a woman’s problem.
That’s what I would love to see come off that screen, that it would grab everybody, and they’d say, “It’s time we make a change.”
Feldman: That was beautiful, Lilly. Thank you. I want people to be affected by fair pay and gender equity, certainly. That’s what the film is about, and that is what Lilly has been dedicated to. We’re also going to have an impact campaign accompanying the distribution of the film that will continue to work for fair pay issues. The social impact of Lilly’s story—that’s primary.
I think Lilly is a superhero. I’m making a superhero movie. Lilly’s story is bold. Lilly’s story has heartbreak and euphoria and suspense and incredible highs and incredible lows that this one single character, a real person, withstood with grace all the way through.
The big story for me, the big thematic narrative, is about radical resilience. If you’re a person, woman or otherwise, anywhere in the world, and you are being othered or beat down or minimized or excluded or cheated or harassed, you are a Lilly. I want this movie on a global scale to say: Here’s a character, a real woman, who was able to surmount all of these obstacles and thrive and make a change for others. That’s what I want people walking out of the movie theater feeling.
I hope that people will be inspired and excited and touched emotionally to do great things like Lilly, to be moved by her, to stand up for justice, to speak up for the right, to speak up for the oppressed, and to stand proud. It’s not easy. In this moment, for women, for people of color, we are in a moment of reckoning. I believe this is the right movie for the right moment that will inspire all kinds of reckonings, not just fair pay, but especially fair pay.
Dove-Viebahn: Fantastic. I think both of you have expressed this so eloquently the potential for this film and Lilly’s story getting a wider audience. I’m so excited to see where all this will lead. And you now have Patricia Clarkson signed on to portray Lilly.
Feldman: Patricia Clarkson has been at the top of my consciousness from the moment I started writing this script. She’s a Southern woman. She’s been involved in democratic politics her whole life because of her mother. She’s a feminist. She’s an extraordinary actor who is tough like Lily as a veneer, and also soft and beautiful and loving like Lilly on the inside. She brings to our story a gravitas and a prestige factor; we couldn’t have dreamed for a better actor. She’s really magnificent.
I’ve never met an actor who is as excited to play a role as she is to play Lilly. Lilly’s her hero. I think she is a very essential element that’s going to make this film the thing that we want it to be.
Dove-Viebahn: You’re still in the process of financing the film, right?
Feldman: Yes! So, if there’s anybody who reads this interview, who would like to help us get this movie made, who’d like to invest or contribute, please contact us. We have a fiscal sponsor. We have a nonprofit 501-c3. You can contribute to the film or you can invest.
Dove-Viebahn: Thank you both so much for talking with me today. It’s a tremendous story, and we at Ms. are so grateful to you, Lilly, for all your work. And to Rachel for telling the story. I look forward to seeing the film, hopefully soon!