WASHINGTON — Somehow over the past four months, Hillary has become ho-hum.

She’s portrayed in the media as Hillary Inc. — the front-runner running a nearly flawless campaign, the unflappable debater, the canny survivor poised to survive a new spate of unflattering books, the ultimate insider who hasn’t been dented much by the yearning among voters for an outsider.

Maybe Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t need the Supreme Court — Lord knows, not this Supreme Court — to remind people of the extraordinary historical moment her candidacy represents. But now the court’s right-wing majority has decided that it doesn’t matter if women are paid less than men who do the same job, year after year — even decade after decade.

Employers who’ve been found to discriminate early in a woman’s career can’t be held liable for the subsequent years she’s underpaid, the high court ruled last week. Only if a woman finds out, pretty much as soon as it happens, that she’s being paid less for the same work — then takes action within 180 days — can she sue. And if this pay gap goes undetected for several years, compounding annually as raises are based on a percentage of the woman’s lower pay? Tough luck.

This is, in essence, what the court ruled in the case of Lilly M. Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant supervisor from Alabama. Ledbetter already had convinced a jury she was the victim of blatant discrimination — at one point, she was paid less than Goodyear’s minimum for the position she held. Her boss had told her the plant “did not need women.” After about 18 years with the company, Ledbetter’s pay was $3,727 a month — $559 a month less than the lowest-paid male manager who held the same position, and $1,509 a month behind the most highly paid male. A jury awarded Ledbetter $3 million in back pay and damages — a sum reduced by the trial judge to $360,000. She’ll end up with nothing now.

“The wonders of compounding” that conservatives cheerily promote when they’re pushing a pet idea, such as financing retirement on your own, works in pay discrimination too: The longer a woman is underpaid, the more money she loses — her pension benefits are diminished and her Social Security benefit shrinks compared with that of the man at the next work station. Wage discrimination isn’t just unfair. It can impoverish women in old age.

Millionaire Clinton does not face this fate, but that does not matter. She long ago confronted the reality of being female in America. In October 2005, Sen. Clinton attached an amendment to an appropriations bill requiring the Bush Labor Department to continue collecting data on women’s employment and wages — the plan had been to stop gathering it, on the apparent theory that the less women know about how much they’re underpaid, the less they’ll complain.

Then this March, Clinton promoted comprehensive “paycheck fairness” legislation that anticipated a crucial difficulty that was illuminated by the Ledbetter case. Because an individual worker’s pay is generally not made public, few women can discern when they are being paid less than their male counterparts. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg points out in her dissent to the Supreme Court decision that a third of private-sector employers prohibit workers from discussing their wages with co-workers. Clinton’s bill calls for, among other things, a prohibition on businesses retaliating against employees who share salary information. If you don’t know you’re being discriminated against, you can’t do a thing about it — which is, apparently, how the majority of the Supreme Court wants it.

Not much about Clinton’s effort got attention. These “women’s issues” don’t involve a celebrity pregnancy or an anorexic actress or even the exhausting argument over abortion. Even when Clinton does draw news coverage for her work on matters that concern women, it almost always comes with the caveat that she is stroking her political “base,” a sneer that reduces women to a special-interest group. Hint to political reporters: Women are a majority of Democratic primary voters, and a majority of voters in the electorate as a whole.

It is not that men do not support fairness for women — Clinton’s forthcoming measure to correct the new timing problem set by the Supreme Court ruling is likely to be co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Tom Harkin of Iowa, among others. The broader Paycheck Fairness Act also has men as co-sponsors. But neither Clinton’s legislative agenda, nor even the prescience of it, is what makes her first-woman-who-could-become-president candidacy novel.

What sets her apart is that she gets it.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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