Lilly Ledbetter’s Fight for Equal Pay Gets the Big Screen Treatment

Across industries, women continue to be paid less than men for the same work—and that’s especially true in Hollywood. Indeed, it appears as if the eradication of workplace sex discrimination may be too fantastical a concept for even the world’s largest creative industry to imagine.

But feminist filmmaker Rachel Feldman hopes to change that with a little help from her friend, fair pay advocate and down-home hero Lilly Ledbetter. Feldman’s award-winning script, Ledbetter, explores the titular star’s historic face-off with tire giant Goodyear; with it, the veteran director is rebooting the woman-driven, socially conscious drama genre and drawing inspiration from such classic films as Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich and Silkwood. Feldman is currently working to secure funding to make the film.

The Ms. Blog took some time to chat with Feldman and her muse about Ledbetter’s legacy, the challenges of bringing a woman’s story to the big screen and the meaningful change that can happen in Hollywood when women call “action!”

Lilly, you’ve worked so hard to achieve equal pay for women, taking your fair-pay case against Goodyear all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and urging President Obama to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. What motivates you to put in so much overtime?

Lilly Ledbetter: There’s so much to do. So much heartache. So many, many families—not just in the United States but around the world—that are suffering not because women don’t work, [but] because they are not compensated what they have legally earned under the law. It’s still rampant in this country to hire women for less wages. They don’t get promoted. They don’t get recognized. They put them into categories, even in the military … [the armed forces] will put a female into a [position in which] she can’t move up or she can’t apply for another position. It limits [women’s] income. So, there’s still so many doors that must be opened so that women can walk through.

What is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of equal pay?

LL: We’ve got to change the thinking. I have a bad hangup [about] people referring to men’s jobs and women’s jobs. It’s a job. It’s a job description. It’s a classification and experience in whatever the person needs to get that job. I grew up during a time when … the classifieds had men’s jobs and women’s jobs separate. I go that far back. [And still], if you read the ads, every once in a while they try to word them so if you’re not a man, don’t apply. It’s just old school. My neighbor asked me later [about my court case], “Well, what in the hell was you doing in that man’s job?” I said, “It wasn’t a man’s job. It was a job.” I was better qualified. I could do the job. I stayed in it for almost 20 years!

[Another example]: In the 2008 presidential campaign … Sen. [John] McCain (R-Ariz.) said women’s problem was we didn’t have enough education or training, [that] if we had more, we would’ve gotten more money, we could’ve earned. That’s not true.

Rachel Feldman: That overlaps to the issue of women directors. I’ve been directing in film and television for 30 years. I have a Master’s degree in directing, I have over 60 [network television] credits to my name and yet I am still perceived as sort of a no-name director … Part of what we should be judged on, like any worker, is the level of our skill. Did Lilly know how to operate these machines? Did she know how to train these men to be as efficient as possible to create the best tire in the most effective way? Yes, and she proved that time and time again. But was she recognized for that? No. She was invisible to them … [The entertainment] industry is the same way.

What excites you two the most about sharing Lilly’s story on the big screen?

LL: It wakes people up. I do a lot of college visits, a lot of lectures on college campuses and a lot of the colleges say, “Well, we don’t need to hear a pay advocate—we have equal pay.” And when they hear me talk, they’re just flabbergasted. They cannot believe how far behind we are. If you could put it on the screen, could you imagine the emotion? I went to the House and the Senate and testified before young lawyers that work for staffers … staffers for congressmen and senators and those men would be crying … and [later] they’d say, “I was thinking about my mother, working three jobs…”

RF: The thing that motivates me and why I want to make Lilly’s movie is not just the politics. The politics are very important to me on a personal and political level, but this is a story about… a woman’s life. She’s really a remarkable human being, and what she has lived through—the time, the place, the position, the job—and how she transforms from where she started to [what] she has become is a breathtaking story. A one-of-a-kind, David and Goliath kind of story that will empower men and women in a very significant and remarkable way.

Rachel, what challenges have you encountered making a movie about such a politically active woman like Lilly?

RF: People say they want to make movies about women. Certainly Melissa McCarthy… and Amy Schumer and Tina Fey and all of these women are doing fantastic, fantastic things. A lot in comedy. But in the drama world, there’s still a little bit of fear of, “Do I want to make a drama with a female protagonist?” and, “Do I want to make a political movie?” From the distribution and production end, [studios and networks] are nervous and I’ve heard so many times, “What an amazing story, I will pay my $15 to go see the movie, but I don’t know that I want my company to spend the next 2 or 3 years making this movie because it’s too hard.” But I don’t know what’s “too hard” about it. Everyone likes to be inspired. The best movies—whether they’re comedies or dramas, or action pictures—are roller coaster rides. If Lilly’s story is not a roller coaster ride, then what is? [But] Lilly’s story is considered a “women’s story.”

LL: It’s a family story.

RF: It’s a human story, it’s a political story, it’s a governmental story, it’s a story about society… It’s a story about justice. And ultimately, what Lilly’s story is about and the reason why I think it’s so important… is it’s a story about… that truly American thing—one person can make a difference.

Lilly, what can people do to build on your work toward equal pay for women?

LL: Get involved. That’s what I learned. I didn’t get the Ledbetter bill passed by myself either. I had a lot of help from coast to coast. It got the attention of this country. The verdict in my case got the attention. I couldn’t let it go then. I can’t let it go now… There is such an epidemic across this country and so much work is needed to be done and it’s going to take politicians and changing some laws, but it takes everybody.

What do you both hope Ledbetter adds to the national conversation about equal pay?

RF: Going back to Lilly and her story, yes, their pay is important. Yes, all of the politics that Lilly is so impassioned about is crucial for our country to change and I am a big believer and a big supporter, but that’s really not the reason I want to make the movie… I want little girls to go see this movie and go, “I can fight when something is wrong. I know what’s right and you’re doing me wrong and I don’t care how scared I am, but I am going to move forward.”

LL: It was not about the money when I filed my charge. To me, it was about what was right. I had to take a stand and in the beginning, it was just about me and my family. [But as] it turned out, it was about everybody, about every family across this nation.

RF: [Lilly] is really a heroine and I want to make a movie that shows people that we all need to be heroes. We all need to be active in order for change to occur. That we are at a tipping point in terms of where we are as women in America, but we’re just getting there and then we need to zoom to the top and we’re only going to zoom to the top if we all collectively understand that we need to fight just like [Lilly] fought Goodyear. We need to fight all of these things.

Photo of Lilly Ledbetter (left) and Rachel Feldman courtesy of Feldman.


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!