Fair pay comes up in last night’s debate

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With the economy bottoming out, it’s a given that working women are going to get slammed extra hard, what with our piddling 77 cents earned to every dollar for a man. But it seemed to me that equal pay had taken a back seat in this increasingly feisty presidential campaign. So when Barack Obama mentioned Lilly Ledbetter last night, I hooted.

You remember her. Lilly Ledbetter was a longtime supervisor in a Goodyear Tire plant who discovered she had for many years been making far less than her male colleagues. The courts agreed this was a clear case of discriminatory pay practices. But Goodyear challenged the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court, which, startlingly, told Ledbetter she had no case. Why? Because, according to the law, she ought to have filed a complaint as soon as the discriminatory pay began—even though (of course!) she had no way of knowing she was getting suckered back then.

I met Lilly earlier this year when Time Inc. president Ann Moore invited a few of us for breakfast. If you called Central Casting and asked for a sympathetic character, it would send her: a tiny, neatly groomed Southern grandma. She’s been active in this presidential race, campaigning with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden (Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick likens them to Charlie’s Angels), and continuing to press her case.

So where does John McCain stand on equal pay for equal work? This April, when the Senate voted on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act—which would turn over the Supreme Court’s verdict by making each new paycheck subject to a discrimination lawsuit—McCain didn’t show up. But he’s since said he woulda voted no anyway because such a law would “opens us up for lawsuits, for all kinds of problems and difficulties.”

But wait—he’s got a lady running mate! Surely Sarah Palin will come out stumping for women’s rights in the workplace. But her recent remarks to Katie Couric are, how can I put this nicely, totally insane. Here, from the blog RHRealityCheck:

Couric: Where do you stand on the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act?

Palin: I’m absolutely for equal pay for equal work. The Ledbetter pay act – it was gonna turn into a boon for trial lawyers who, I believe, could have taken advantage of women who were many, many years ago who would allege some kind of discrimination. Thankfully, there are laws on the books, there have been since 1963, that no woman could be discriminated against in the workplace in terms of anything, but especially in terms of pay. So, thankfully we have the laws on the books and they better be enforced.

Couric: The Ledbetter act sort of lengthens the time a woman can sue her company if she’s not getting equal pay for equal work. Why should a fear of lawsuits trump a woman’s ability to do something about the fact that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. And that’s today.

Palin: There should be no fear of a lawsuit prohibiting a woman from making sure that the laws that are on the books today are enforced. I know in a McCain-Palin administration we will not stand for any measure that would result in a woman being paid less than a man for equal work.

Couric: Why shouldn’t the Ledbetter act be in place? You think it would result in lawsuits brought by women years and years ago. Is that your main problem with it?

Palin: It would have turned into a boon for trial lawyers. Again, thankfully with the existing laws we have on the books, they better be enforced. We won’t stand for anything but that. We won’t stand for any discrimination in the workplace – that there isn’t any discrimination in America.