Jan. 28, 2009 — -- Calling pay equity not a women's issue but a family issue, President Obama today signed a new bill seeking to end decades-long pay disparities between men and women.
Joined in the East Room of the White House by Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Lilly Ledbetter, the 70-year-old tire plant supervisor for whom the bill is named, Obama said it was "fitting that the very first bill I signed -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act -- is upholding one of this nation's founding principles: That we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness."
The equal-pay bill ends a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision saying that employees had only 180 days to file pay-discrimination lawsuits and is expected to make it easier for workers to sue for decades-long discrimination.
Ledbetter filed a 1998 suit against a Goodyear Tire Rubber Co. plant in Gadsen, Ala., after learning that men working in the same position were making more money. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that Ledbetter had waited too long to sue, since she brought the suit near the end of her 19-year career with the company.
"I was initially humiliated. I felt degraded," Ledbetter has said of her feelings about the pay disparity.
The new legislation allows lawsuits to be brought years later, as long as the alleged pay disparity is continuing.
The new legislation isn't limited to gender-based discrimination. It amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act and also applies to discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, disability or age.
"In signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message that making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone," Obama told the approximately 150 people assembled, including members of Congress and women's and labor groups that have long been advocates of the bill.
The gaggle of senators and congressman, almost all Democrats, stood on the dais of the East Room: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Rob Andrews, D-N.J.
Two Republicans were in attendance at the event as well -- Maine's GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
Michelle Obama a Strong Supporter
The legislation highlights an issue close to first lady Michelle Obama, who championed equal pay on the campaign trail.
At a reception honoring Ledbetter following the White House bill signing ceremony, the first lady praised the 70-year-old tire plant supervisor as someone who "knew unfairness when she saw it and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do."
Michelle Obama called the legislation "an important step forward" and a "cornerstone of a broader commitment to address the needs of working women."
Ledbetter said she was humbled by a law bearing her name that will do such good for women and others fighting against pay discrimination.
"Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out," Ledbetter said of her former employer. "In fact I will never see a cent from my case, but with the presidents signature today, I have an even richer reward. I know that your daughters and granddaughters will have a better deal, and that's what makes this fight worth fighting."
In earlier remarks, the president said the law bearing Ledbetter's name reached further. "It's the story of women across this country still earning just 78 cents for every dollar men earn -- women of color even less -- which means that today, in the year 2009, countless women are still losing thousands of dollars in salary, income and retirement savings over the course of a lifetime."
That discrepancy translates into $210,000 less for women over a 35-year, full-time work life, according to an August 2008 study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
At a press conference following the ceremony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Ledbetter "a very courageous woman.
"She will not benefit at all from this legislation. Every other working woman in America will," Pelosi said.
ABC News' Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.