How We Pay Tribute to Betty Dukes in the Fight for Fair Pay

Betty Dukes (2nd from right, front row) stands with our ERA team and other lead plaintiffs.

“Justice is coming, Noreen, it is coming.”

These were Betty Dukes’ words to me in March 2011 as we descended the steps of the United States Supreme Court after oral arguments in the landmark sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart we filed in her name. Equal Rights Advocates was among a team of lawyers proudly representing Betty Dukes and other female Wal-Mart workers across the country challenging discriminatory pay and promotion practices by the retail giant.

Family, friends, and advocates came together recently to mourn the sad passing of Betty Dukes, who retired last year from her 23-year career as a Wal-Mart greeter. The service was held the same week as Black Women’s Equal Pay Today, a day to emphasize that Black women must work 20 months to reach the 12-month earnings of white men. It was a poignant moment to honor and celebrate the life of Betty Dukes, who did so much to end pay discrimination against low wage workers and women of color.

Though the Supreme Court later reversed certification of a nationwide class without ruling on the merits of the case, Betty Dukes’ promise of justice was a sound premonition. She became a lightning rod for women workers across the country and eventually settled her individual claims against Wal-Mart. Betty’s case pressured important improvements in pay and promotion practices at Wal-Mart, including the better posting of higher paying job opportunities. Smaller gender discrimination cases continue around the country to defend the civil rights of women workers at Wal-Mart.

In the years since the Dukes’ Supreme Court decision, we have joined advocates across the country to strengthen fair pay laws supposed to protect women workers. Inspired by Betty, Equal Rights Advocates partnered with the nation’s top women’s rights organizations to form the national Equal Pay Today! Campaign to close the pay gap in states across the country. We introduced and passed the strongest state equal pay law in the country in California. The California Fair Act, signed by Governor Jerry Brown at the Rosie the Riveter Museum just a few miles from Betty’s home, was recently amended prohibit discrimination based on race in addition to sex. In the past two years, forty-one states have introduced similar or stronger equal pay laws to close the gender wage gap harming Black women and Latinas especially. We are also pushing for a living wage for women who comprise 2/3 of the minimum wage workforce. Twenty one states will put minimum wage increases into effect in 2017, including California which was the first in the nation to approve a $15/hour minimum wage rate. And today, California joins dozens of other cities and states considering bills to prohibit the reliance on prior salaries in setting hiring pay which can perpetuate past discrimination, particularly for women of color.

In Betty’s honor, we are not stopping with policy reform. Inspired by how Betty galvanized crowds across the country with her story, we are pushing for a shift in the broader culture devaluing women and their work. It is working. Today, 93% of Americans believe women should be paid equally to men for comparable work. Fair pay legislation enjoys bipartisan and employer support in some states. In California, the Chamber of Commerce supported the Fair Pay Act, and it passed with nearly unanimous votes in the legislature. Led by industry leaders like Salesforce, hundreds of companies have signed pledges to promote equal pay. Some have back up their pledges with fair pay audits and pay adjustments for women workers.

To be sure, there is much work to be done. It is unacceptable that Black women average just 63 cents on every dollar paid to white men and will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars over their careers to the pay gap. But we will continue to honor the courage of Betty Dukes as we fight for fair pay in the courts, legislative offices, and the streets.

You were right, Betty. Inevitably, justice is coming. It’s coming.

Click on these links to learn more about ERA campaigns promoting fair pay and women’s economic security at the federal level and in California. Join our Action Team to help drive important reform!

Equal Rights Advocates salutes the brave women workers of Wal-Mart, including Betty Dukes’ fellow lead plaintiffs at various points in the litigation (Edith Arana; Christine Kwapnoski; Karen Williamson; Deborah Gunter; Cleo Page; and Patricia Surgeson.) We also recognize and thank our tremendous co-counsel in Dukes v. Wal-Mart (Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; The Impact Fund, Davis Cowell & Bowe LLP; The Tinkler Law Firm; The Bennett Firm; Law Office of Sheila Thomas; and Public Justice Center), as well as the thousands of other lawyers, workers, and community partners who supported the case.


Originally published by Noreen Farrell, Executive Director at Equal Rights Advocates, at medium.com on August 9, 2017.

Equal Rights Advocates

Written by

We are civil rights champions, fighting since 1974 to expand and protect the opportunities of all women and girls.