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
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
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.”