National Association of Social Workers
January 29, 2009
On the evening of January 28, I was completing some work at my office in DC when I received a phone call from the White House inquiring if I would like to join President Obama the next morning as he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. The request was unexpected but welcome, as NASW had been an advocate for the important legislation educating members and asking them to support it at all possible opportunities. The bill was named after a woman who did not learn about the discrepancy in pay between her and her male co-workers until the end of her 19-year career at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Lilly Ledbetter was denied redress by a 2007 Supreme Court decision. The court said that a person must file a discrimination claim within 180 days of a company’s initial decision to pay a worker less than another person doing the same job. Under this new law, which amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act, each new discriminatory paycheck would extent the statute of limitations for an additional 180 days.
The next morning I woke up hours early to get ready for my third trip to the White House over the past three administrations. However, this was the first trip that I’ve taken to witness a bill being signed into law. I arrived a bit after 8:30am for my instructed 9:00am entrance. I was joined by many of my colleagues in the women’s rights community including Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women and Ellie Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority. I also spoke with prominent members of the civil rights community including Hilary Shelton who directs the Washington Bureau of the NAACP and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, President Emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. After a cold hour of waiting, we were granted entrance, cleared by the Secret Service, and filed into the White House. Surprisingly, we were given some freedom to stroll about. I enjoyed seeing the First Ladies room with beautiful portraits of the historic women of past administrations. Finally, we were led into the room where the President would be signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law.
I was lucky enough to find a front row seat in front of the small desk where the President would sign the bill. As I sat waiting for President Obama, I twittered the experience took a few pictures with my blackberry, spoke with a few members of Congress who were filtering in, and observed the new power players including Secretary of State Clinton, Vice-President Biden, and First Lady Michelle Obama. I was also pleased to speak with Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, and was surprised to see that I was in the company of several members of Congress who were very eager to speak with her and even took a picture or two.
I was also very fortunate to speak with civil rights legend and famous social worker, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, President Emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. NASW is honored to name the Social Work Reinvestment Act after Dr. Height and fellow civil rights legend Whitney Young. Dr. Height looked stunning, as usual, in her beautiful purple suit and matching hat, and we discussed the reintroduction of the Social Work Reinvestment Act in the next few days and the historic experience of President Obama signing this bill. Having worked for over 50 years on these issues, this event had to have been a milestone in her life.
I also was pleased to see Senator and social worker Barbara Mikulski, who was the lead sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She seemed extremely pleased and reflective, as she absorbed the weight of the occasion. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, also a social worker, and new Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was in attendance and was speaking to everyone in the crowd. Both women have always been supportive of the profession and the issues we care about.
President Obama emerged around 10:00am to greet the crowd of 150 or so gathered to witness the event. The new law was a monumental event in itself, but again, this was the first piece of legislation that the President was signing into law so the ambiance was extremely lively and positive. The President gave a wonderful speech regarding Mrs. Ledbetter’s perseverance and courage and noted that this is a victory not just for women, but for everyone discriminated against in their lifetime. He then signed the bill with his signature left-handed posture and handed out the pens, the first to Senator Mikulski and another, of course, to Lilly Ledbetter. He then rose and shook hands and chatted with each and every person in attendance. His charisma is undeniable.
A striking observation that I made were the “power circles” I noted in the room. After the signing, the President, Vice President and First Lady all attracted their own following in different corners of the room. The each had different, but equally engaging conversations with groups of eager participants. It was interesting to see so many people NASW has worked with over the years, celebrating equality and progress with this new Administration. The First Lady then asked us all to join her at a reception honoring Lilly Ledbetter in the State Dining Room.
As I reflect upon the morning, I think of how exciting it was to be a part of history and to represent our members at an event that affects not only women, but also families. It was a nice honor for social work to “be at the table”. We look forward to the next four years