Real Women of "North Country"
American Association of University Women Chapter and National Women's History Museum Honor the Real Women of “North Country”
In April 2006, the Hibbing, Minnesota, chapter of the American Association of University Women held a ceremony honoring the women workers at Eveleth Mines who filed the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit. Their story became the basis for the 2005 movie North Country. National Women's History Museum President Susan Jollie wrote a letter commending their efforts and the letter was read at the ceremony and each woman received a copy. Each woman was presented with a NWHM button with the quote, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.”
Background on the Class Action Suit Brought Against Eveleth Mines
Provided by Stephanie Carlson of the AAUW Chapter in Hibbing, Minnesota
Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range is home to the largest Iron ore deposit in the world. Since red iron ore was discovered in 1890 by the Merritt brothers, men have toiled in the iron mines, that is until 1974 when 9 of the country’s largest steel companies signed a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Labor Department requiring the industry’s mines to provide 20% of its new jobs to women and minorities. And in 1975 four women walked into the Eveleth Mines Forbes Fairlane Plant for the first time. Among these women was a 27-year-old single mother named Lois Jenson. Jenson took a job at the mines because it paid 3 times as much as she could earn anywhere else and she needed a job that would pay enough to support herself and her young son and provide benefits such as health care. Her female colleagues at the mines sought employment there for much of the same reasons, many were family breadwinners and some were single women trying to support themselves. They all came looking for financial independence, but what they found would cost them so much more.
The men that worked at the mine were very vocal about their opposition to the women working at the mine right from the start and that disapproval turned ugly quickly. Pornographic pictures and graffiti began showing up everywhere around the mine, dildos modeled out of waterproofing material appeared in the women’s workplaces, lewd jokes and unwelcome physical contact form co-workers and supervisors became everyday occurrences. As more women were hired the harassment just got worse. The behavior of the men escalated into stalking, assault, and threats of rape.
Women that complained about the behavior would find themselves threatened or exiled to work in isolated parts of the plant. Where they would find themselves vulnerable to the men. One woman found herself working at the top of a conveyor that was 6 blocks long and high above a pile of taconite. One day her foreman followed her to the top when they reached the end of the conveyor he tried to kiss her, she was terrified, he could shove her out into the pile of taconite and no one would ever find her. She managed to escape that situation, but it would not be the last time she would be threatened or assaulted. Another woman was forced to work with a man who would drop his pants when they were alone. In most areas of the mine there were no bathroom facilities for women and the men and management took a “deal with it” attitude when the women complained, the men did not need bathrooms, why should the women. As a result of not having facilities, many of the women would stop drinking and have to hold their urine for hours resulting in dehydration and severe bladder and kidney infections.
When the women continued to complain many of the men would justify the behavior and call it “teasing” or “just having fun” and they would excuse it by saying it was just part of their culture, but the women viewed it as hostile, threatening, and humiliating. The harassment was reported repeatedly to supervisors, management, and the union but nothing changed. The women were caught between management and the union. The women were also a part of the union and it was unacceptable practice to rat on your union brothers, but as they women quickly found out, the union officials were also men and that fact superseded everything, even union loyalties.
The women learned to deal with their work environment in their own ways. Some took on the “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” attitude and started dishing it out to the men. Some carried weapons for self-defense, others took sick days to recover from attacks, and as a result of it all, their mental health continued to decline, they found themselves becoming people they and their family and friends did not recognize.
It all came to a head in 1984 when Lois Jenson was stalked by a salaried co-worker who broke into her home and threatened her son. The union still refused to help her and management promised to transfer him but it never happened. She had had enough, so she filed a complaint with the State Department of Human Rights in October of 1984. The State found probable cause and requested that the mine institute a sexual harassment policy and pay punitive damages for mental anguish. The company agreed to adopt a sexual harassment policy but refused to pay any money. The harassment continued and intensified. After the policy was instituted signs that read, “Sexual harassment will not be tolerated, but will be graded,” began appearing around the mine. This began the string of legal battles and worsening harassment. Over the next several years the case dragged on until an attorney from the Attorney General’s office persuaded Jenson to turn her complaint into a class action. From there she hired a private law firm and began to try to convince other women to join her in the law suit, what she ended up doing was alienating most of the other women and the union, but she persevered and found an ally in Patricia Kosmach. The two women finally convinced enough others to join them and in 1988 the suit was certified as a class action with the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.
At that time, the plaintiffs were willing to settle the case, but Oglebay Norton, owners of Eveleth Mines, refused the terms and the case continued for 10 more years. The case went to trial in 1992 and the court ruled that Eveleth Mines maintained a hostile work environment and ordered the company to develop a policy and educate employees about sexual harassment and they also ordered that they enact a procedure for effectively addressing complaints.
The damages phase of the trial began another round of humiliation and brutality against the women, this time at the hands of the attorneys. The defense delved into every painful detail of the women’s lives. Their personal and sexual pasts were picked apart; every detail was on display regardless of its relevance to the case. Pat Kosmach, who originally had her name on the suit with Jenson, developed ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) during the course of the trial. Her illness was in no way related to or a result of the case, but one example of the ruthlessness of the defense attorneys was demonstrated when they burst into her hospital room and demanded to see her medical records and tried to depose her when she could no longer even speak. She died before the case ended and her heirs received nothing from the settlement. This tactic ended up backfiring on the employer, the court issued a strongly worded opinion and set a trial date for December 1998, 13 years after Lois Jenson had filed her first complaint and 23 years after she first walked through the doors of Eveleth Mines.
The women settled on New Years Eve 1997, but it was a hollow victory, many of the women were sick, exhausted, and bitter. The damage was done and it was irreparable. They settled for modest amounts and they never received what Lois wanted all along; an apology. And because of that, the settlement and the lasting emotional scars, closure was never really achieved for any of the women.
As for the mine, litigation and negative publicity could have been avoided and millions of dollars saved if Oglebay Norton, Eveleth Mines, and the union would have addressed the women’s complaints and taken steps to effectively rectify the situation and protect them. Lois Jenson’s first request was for just that, an educational sexual harassment policy, compensation for her stress related health problems and job security, but they flatly refused.
In the end, the suit set many very important precedents. First, it sent a strong message to employers that they could not ignore it when their employees were being harassed sexually. The case also drew very clear lines regarding who has the burden of proving that a hostile work environment is the cause of a plaintiff’s mental anguish or emotional distress, these two decisions have made both the workplace and the courtroom safer for sexual harassment victims. But most importantly by certifying the case as a class action, the court put the principles of collective bargaining to work in the courtroom and it gave once powerless, voiceless workingwomen a platform to demand change and the leverage to achieve it.
Susan Jollie’s Letter to the Eveleth Mill Women on Behalf of the National Women's History Museum
The National Women’s History Museum is pleased to join with the Hibbing, Minnesota, branch of the American Association of University Women in honoring Lois Jenson and her fellow plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit that established important legal precedents on sexual harassment in the workplace. These courageous women initially had very modest goals, but their struggle ultimately improved the working conditions of women nationwide. The women who banded together to challenge the hostile environment at the Eveleth Mines are part of a long and proud tradition of women who have made America a better place to live.
There is a common misconception that women were not members of the workforce until recently. But women have always worked, on farms, in factories or as domestic servants, teaching school, working as secretaries, and participating in philanthropic organizations. One of the earliest and largest incidents of workplace activism occurred in 1836 when nearly 2,000 Lowell mill factory workers in Massachusetts went on strike, demanding better working conditions. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, women formed their own unions to better combat poor workplace situations, such as the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union and the Women’s Trade Union League. In all these cases, women were confronting large companies run by men who did not want to change. Women were instrumental in leading the fights for safer working conditions, fair wages, forty-hour work weeks, and the end to child labor, all of which are workplace conditions that we take for granted today.
The women at the Eveleth Mines were trailblazers. Following enactment of civil rights legislation, they seized the opportunity to be employed in jobs and industries that had traditionally been regarded as male occupations. Like the women before them, they were not out to change society but were motivated by a desire to earn higher wages and obtain benefits to support themselves or their families. They confronted male-dominated institutions that did not welcome change. Their fellow workers subjected them to verbal abuse, offensive materials, and unwelcome physical contact. The company refused to install women’s bathrooms and provide safety equipment sized for women’s smaller bodies.
These women advocated for a sexual harassment policy. But complaints to management and their union only contributed to a more actively hostile environment. Their struggle for dignity in the workplace then moved into the legal system where the process dragged on for years.
When the women of Eveleth Mines decided they would no longer stand for the abuse and demanded a sexual harassment policy, they could not have known the impact that long and tedious struggle would have on their personal lives. In the end, Lois Jenson and the other class action participants did not profit greatly from the lawsuit. Many suffered in different ways from having the courage to participate in and persevere with the court case. But society as a whole has benefited immeasurably because they did not surrender their beliefs. Their efforts have significantly changed the climate of the workplace, making it possible for women to pursue economic opportunities that were historically denied.
Sexual harassment is no longer something that women can be told to “deal with” or “ignore.” Companies now have sexual harassment policy procedures to combat sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has by no means disappeared, but without the bravery, determination, and commitment of the Eveleth Mines women and others like them who challenged their treatment, the problem would undoubtedly be worse. Today, many of us in the workplace may take for granted this policy just as we may take for granted the 40-hour workweek, and while this attests to the success in changing law and social attitudes, it is important to remember those who made it all possible.
The National Women’s History Museum is an organization dedicated to preserving, interpreting, and celebrating the diverse historic contributions of women, and integrating this rich heritage fully into our nation’s history. An important story that needs to be told is the way in which women have struggled to improve the workplace for the benefit of all members of society. The museum’s newest on-line exhibit, Women in Industry, demonstrates that women have been in the workforce since the nation’s inception and have been key players in movements to improve working conditions. When the National Women’s History Museum opens in a permanent site in Washington, DC, one of the themes will be women’s experience in the workplace. The women of Eveleth Mines should take well-deserved pride in their historic contributions.