Lucy Lobdell to Lilly Ledbetter: the First Steps on the Rocky Road to Equal Pay

tags: gender, feminism, Women's History Month, equal pay, William Klaber


William Klaber lives in upstate New York. A graduate of Wesleyan Univ. and NYU Law, Mr. Klaber is best known for producing the acclaimed radio documentary, "The RFK Tapes" and co-authoring the book "Shadow Play" (St. Martins, 1997). "The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell" is his first foray into fiction.  It is published by Green Leaf Press and will be available in print and e-book formats June 2013 and on pre-order at

Lilly Ledbetter speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Credit: Wiki Commons.

One of the enduring images of last year’s election was that of Lilly Ledbetter standing before the Democrat Convention and telling about her fight against Goodyear Tire for paying her less than her male peers. She won her case on the merits, but then the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against her saying that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the first instance of Goodyear’s shorting her, each subsequent pay theft [my word] just a continuation of the first, and thus, regrettably, beyond the province of the law.

But despite that head-scratcher and the scores of injustices that have followed from it, women have made tremendous gains over how things were. Fifty years ago, when The Feminine Mystique was published, middle class white women who wanted to work could be school teachers, telephone operators, or, if they wanted the glamor job, they could be an airline hostess with travel perks and the certainty of being fired the day they turned 32. If you were a woman and black, the work would be “domestic.” But because of people like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, things are different. Women today are doctors, lawyers and political figures. Most of the work for equality that still needs doing is much lower down the ladder, near the subsistence level. Not just pay equity, but issues such as daycare and health care.

In 1855, Lucy Lobdell was horrified by what then awaited a young woman. “You could be housekeeper or wife: indentured servant or slave,” she wrote. Her personal answer was to cut her hair, get into pants and go out into the world as a man. But the changes went far beyond anything she had imagined, and by the time it was over she was notorious. The New York Times thought her escapades worthy of a huge obituary. So did the New York Sun. But time passed and Lucy was forgotten. To the extent she is remembered today, it is for the “highlights” of her career: her years passing as a man on the western frontier; her arrest and trial for the crime of wearing men’s clothes; her marriage to Marie Perry by an unsuspecting judge, the first same-sex marriage in America; or that she was the first woman in the country to whom the word “lesbian” was attached. These are certainly markers in American history, but what is often overlooked is the reason Lucy went out into the world disguised as a man.

Lucy wrote a short “narrative” about her early life. Toward the end, she detailed what she saw around her—marriages where the husband drank the money or simply took off, leaving wife and children destitute. “If a woman is willing to toil, give her wages equal to that of a man,” she demanded. But since that was not going to happen anytime soon, Lucy came to her own solution. “I’ve made up my mind to dress in men’s attire to seek labor,” she wrote. “And as I might work harder at house-work and get only a dollar a week, I am capable of doing men’s work and getting ten.”

Lucy went out into the world as a man, but things quickly got complicated. Women started falling for this lithe, agile guy who understood what a woman liked. And Lucy started liking them back, suddenly dealing with sexual issues whose vocabulary had yet to be invented. Was Lucy a transvestite? A lesbian? Bi-sexual? Transgender? Did she go insane? These are valid questions, but it is important to remember that before Lucy was any of these, she was a feminist. She spoke up about the injustices routinely suffered by women. She didn’t join others who were just starting to fight back (probably didn’t know of them), so she does not belong with Lucretia Mott or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But the choices Lucy made and the trouble that came out of them can be seen and should be seen as early skirmishes in the drawn out battle for equality that continues today.

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