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A Landmark Decision

In 1991, U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum ruled that current and former female workers of Eveleth Mines could all sue in a group. He wrote that the law did not require the mine to have “an employment environment worthy of a Victorian salon.” But, he said, there was evidence of “pervasive offensive conduct” at Eveleth Mines.

It was a historic decision: the first class action sexual harassment suit in the country. In fact, it was a big year in the history of sexual harassment. That same year, Congress changed the law so people who sued for sexual harassment could collect more damages. And a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, was accused of sexual harassment:

Suddenly, sexual harassment was all over the news. The number of people filing harassment claims with the federal government shot up over the next few years.

At Eveleth Mines in Minnesota, women began signing on to the lawsuit. Eventually two thirds of the female hourly workers at Eveleth Mines joined the suit – 21 women. Even some of the women who’d originally signed the petition against the lawsuit.

Jan Wollin had signed the petition, but she changed her mind the day a foreman patted her rear and told her, “You know you like it babe.”

Wollin says she went to the boss to complain. “I says, ‘I don’t appreciate being patted on the ass. It’s mine, nobody has a right to touch it. So you either take care of him or I said I’m going to come back down here and I’m going to have a set of bloody nuts in my hand.’ Well, they laughed. They thought it was funnier’n hell. You know, and I was mad. 'Cause I said, ‘I will not be pawed and I will not be patted by any damn man out here.’ So that’s when I joined the lawsuit, because I was mad.”

Her coworker, Denise Vesel, opposed the suit initially, too. Her husband had threatened to divorce her if she joined. But another of the women told her she had a good case, since a man had harassed her until she broke his ribs. At the time, Vesel was laid off, and her husband was sick – dying, in fact. The lawsuit offered the possibility of money. And revenge. So she signed on behind his back.

“I think it was a whole year I went without him knowing,” she says. “And then I had to go down and do a deposition, and I had to finally tell him and oh, that went over like a lead balloon. He did not like that.”

Vesel says she told him to go ahead and divorce her. She says she told him, “I’m going to do what I want to do and you’re not going to control me anymore.”


Next: A Landmark Decision - part 2