Iron Women

Because Congress pass-ed the law without any debate over what constituted sex discrimination, the courts had to interpret the law on their own based on cases brought by a few women brave enough to test it. In 1979, feminist scholar Catharine McKinnon asserted that sexual harassment could not only entail a proposition in exchange for keeping a job, but that a hostile workplace, including repeated exposure to sexually offensive material as a condition of employment, could also be considered a form of illegal discrimination. But it wasn’t until 1988, when a small group of women in Minnesota filed a class action against their employer, that McKinnon’s premise was really tested in the courtroom.

In Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law, Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler have set out to tell the story of those women who made sexual harassment law mean something. It’s a horrific tale that dates back to the mid-1970s, when women were entering the workplace in droves. It’s a story that should have been told long ago, but was probably overlooked because the women in this story were not college professors or even secretaries. They were blue-collar iron miners, working deep in the belly of Minnesota’s Eveleth Mines. As the first women to enter that man’s world, they were mercilessly punished. Their torture by the men at the mine makes office butt-pinching episodes seem like child’s play.

For years, the women were assaulted, stalked, and terrorized by the men they worked with on a daily basis. One woman who drove a truck suffered repeated bladder infections and severe dehydration because the mine expected her to pee in public the way the men did. She was told, “If you want to work like a man, you got to learn to piss like a man, and if you can’t, go home and bake bread.” She eventually ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection. When the mine did put up a port-a-potty for the women, the men would push it over while the women were inside, leaving one woman not just humiliated, but severely burned by the chemicals in the toilet.

Men at the mine ejaculated into a woman’s locker. They left plastic dildos and other graphic sex toys inside the women’s equipment and personal areas. And the offices were filled with obscene graffiti, pornography, and lewd cartoons of naked women being subjected to any number of indignities. But the women endured it, as the mine offered them a way out of poverty. Many were single mothers, some formerly on welfare, who desperately needed the higher-paying jobs the mine offered.

The case got its start in 1984, after the lead plaintiff, Lois Jenson, had suffered repeated and unwanted attention from her supervisor at the mine. Bingham and Gansler trace Jenson’s attempts to get the company to institute a policy against harassment and reassign and discipline the man. Eveleth refused. Eventually, Jenson found her way to a prominent plaintiff’s attorney who was willing to take on the case, and through a Herculean effort, they managed to assemble a class, which most of the women in the mine were too afraid to join.

And perhaps for good reason. Once the lawsuit finally went forward, the legal proceedings proved to be nearly as bad as the harassment itself. The women who were brave enough to come forward were subject to a “nuts and sluts” defense strategy, which entailed ruthless grilling by the defense counsel about their personal lives, abortions, sexual history, domestic violence, and past medical history to cast doubt on their claims that the harassment had caused many stress-related disorders from which they suffered. The case dragged on for more than a decade, before it finally settled in 1999 for several million dollars–less than some other cases filed later, but because the class was so small, the actual sums given to the individual women were among the highest on record.

While their sympathies are clear, Bingham and Gansler present a fairly even-handed account of the case, acknowledging, for instance, that the lawyers did not have perfect clients. They let the reader conclude whether Jenson pursued the case because she was a little nuts, or became nuts because she had suffered and then pursued the case. What is crystal clear, though, is that none of the women deserved the treatment she had endured at the mine. And in the end, that’s what the legal system ruled, too, making Jenson v. Eveleth a landmark case in the brief history of sexual harassment case law.

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Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones, an advisory board member at the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. She was a Washington Monthly editor from 2000 to 2002.