ORONO — Lilly Ledbetter, the woman who took Goodyear Tire and Rubber to the U.S. Supreme Court after discovering she had been underpaid for nearly 20 years of work, told a group of women gathered for a six-day conference to fight for equal pay and stand strong in the face of challenges.

Ledbetter, 74, of Jacksonville, Ala., delivered the keynote speech Saturday evening at this year’s Maine NEW Leadership conference during a dinner at the Penobscot Valley Country Club.

“I had a plan that I would work hard, raise my family, save, and when retirement came I’d enjoy the rest of my life,” Ledbetter said. “But it didn’t work out that way.”

Ledbetter worked 19 years at Goodyear, supervising mostly male workers in a radial tire division.

“It was a great job for a woman,” Ledbetter said. “But I told the young people here today that I don’t understand why we talk about women’s jobs and men’s jobs, because they’re jobs. If the person is capable, has the training, the background, they should be hired.”

In 1998, an individual who has never been identified left a note in Ledbetter’s mailbox. The note included the names of several male employees who held the same position as Ledbetter for the same or a shorter duration. Ledbetter was making $3,727 per month, whereas the men were making between $4,286 and $5,236.

Ledbetter also missed out on retirement and other contributions that are based on wages. She said she was frustrated and angered by the thought of how much her family missed out on over the years because she made so much less than her peers.

“I thought about all those times that we struggled and we had to dig deep to make the mortgage, pay college tuition, pay the dental bill, to make the car payment,” she said, adding that her family missed out on vacations, eating out and other luxuries the men could probably enjoy because of their higher salaries.

After finding she was being short-changed, Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1998. Nine years later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a one-vote margin against Ledbetter because she filed her claim more than 180 days after receiving her first paycheck.

That decision led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which stated that the 180-day statute of limitations resets every time an individual receives a discriminatory paycheck.

“When you start out making less money, you can never catch up,” Ledbetter said. She urged the women to negotiate their starting pay when they get new jobs so they aren’t left behind.

Ledbetter also urged the women in attendance to use their right to vote and research politicians to find candidates who will represent them well.

“We know that women are still only earning 77 cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same work,” said Mary Cathcart, a senior policy fellow at UMaine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and co-director of Maine NEW Leadership. Cathcart argued women need to be more willing to push for equal pay and need to consider how unfair pay levels might affect their futures.

Twenty-nine participants from 18 different institutions who either recently graduated or are attending college are taking part in the program, according to Cathcart.

The NEW conference is part of a national network that started at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Maine program, sponsored by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, has been in place since 2008.

It is designed to address the historic and contemporary underrepresentation of women in politics. The six-day program, which began Friday, offers participants interactive sessions on leadership development, networking, diversity training and the realities of holding office. It is taking place on the University of Maine campus, where students and faculty stay together at the Doris Twitchell Allen Village. Off-campus activities include visits to the State House and Margaret Chase Smith’s home and library in Skowhegan.

BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.

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