Barack and Michelle Obama lead celebration of new equal pay law

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Since her highly photographed appearances at various inaugural balls, the first lady has spent much of her time out of public view helping her two daughters adjust to their new surroundings.

But on Thursday, Michelle Obama played a very public role with her husband marking the passage of a new equal pay law.

Obama's first bill signing

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After the first couple made a trip to their daughter Sasha’s school in Maryland, the president went to the East Room on the first floor of the White House to sign his first bill into law. The measure, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, reversed a 2007 US Supreme Court decision that made it harder to sue for pay discrimination.

At the signing, the president paid tribute to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who attended the ceremony. “It's appropriate that this is the first bill we do together. We could not have done it without her,” Mr. Obama said.

Most of the attendees at the signing ceremony then walked across the hall to the State Dining Room, where Mrs. Obama hosted a reception for Ms. Ledbetter, the Alabama woman for whom the bill was named. It was the first official White House event she has hosted. The president mingled with the crowd but left before his wife spoke.

Battling unfairness

With Ms. Ledbetter standing next to her, Mrs. Obama paid tribute to her "commitment, her dedication, her focus.'' Mrs. Obama, wearing a purple suit and white pearls, said Ms. Ledbetter “knew unfairness when she saw it and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do, plain and simple.”

After 19 years on the job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Ledbetter found that she was the lowest paid supervisor in her plant despite being more experienced than several male counterparts. A jury found the company guilty of discrimination but the Supreme Court held that a discrimination claim must be filed within 180 days of the first offense. The measure Obama signed today provides that every discriminatory paycheck extends the statute of limitations for 180 days.

Needed more when times are tough

The first lady said that, "This legislation is an important step forward, particularly at a time when so many families are facing economic insecurity and instability.”

Mrs. Obama then introduced Ms. Ledbetter, who she described as "an inspiration to women and men all across the country.'' The crowd clapped and cheered.

In response, Ms. Ledbetter said, "Words cannot begin to describe how honored and humbled I feel today. When I filed my claim against Goodyear with the EEOC ten years ago, never, never did I imagine the path that it would lead me down.”

A richer reward

"I have spent the past two years since the Supreme Court decision in my case, fighting for equal pay for this,'' Ms. Ledbetter said. "But to watch him sign a bill that bears my name, a bill that will help women and others fight pay discrimination in the workplace is truly overwhelming. Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of. I will never see a cent from my case. But with the passage and the president's signature today, I have an even richer reward."

After Ms. Ledbetter spoke, she and Mrs. Obama shared a hug while the crowd cheered.

A pool reporter who attended the event said guests sipped orange juice and cranberry juice and enjoyed a mix of pastries, including apricot coffee cake, cherry orange scones, apple muffins and a fruit mix that included mango, apple, clementines and pineapple. Some attendees sat at small round tables adorned with yellow orchids, but mostly guests stood and mixed and mingled.

An inclusive party

While this was the first major public event Mrs. Obama has hosted since moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the latest issue of US Weekly reports that two days after moving in, the first lady hosted a party in the East Room for every member of the White House staff.

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