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Women in the Mines Today

When the truck is full, it creeps off down a dusty red dirt road. It hauls its load up a steep slope, out of the pit, to the processing plant where the ore is made into pellets to ship to steel mills.

Briana Sterle's mother, Lynn, paved the way for other women to work in the mines, but Briana says a summer job while she's in college is enough mine work for her. - Photo by Stephanie Hemphill

At the pellet plant, it’s shift change. A line of workers climbs metal stairways and threads down catwalks among roaring, spinning machines many stories high. There are a few women in the crowd, including Briana Sterle. Under her hardhat, she wears her dark hair in braids, with a couple of streaks of green. Briana Sterle is a college student, working here for the summer. There are ten students this summer, and eight are women.

“The two guys are alone,” she says. “I feel sorry for them. One of them doesn’t talk much. So the other guy must be pretty bored.”

Briana Sterle’s mom used to work in the mines, but Briana says she never really thought about the fact that her mother and other women of her generation cleared the way for her.

“I wasn’t very worried about getting treated weird, because I knew with new laws, women aren't getting treated the way they were back then,” she says.

Some of the women who fought for a place in the mines say this is what they hoped for. They wanted their daughters and granddaughters to have a safe place to work.

Lynn Henderson is pleased she had a hand in changing the world. Henderson isn’t working in the mine anymore. But she still works in a man’s world. She’s a painter now, and most of her coworkers are men. Henderson keeps treasures from her mining days around the house. A collage another woman miner made for her. A folder full of photos and newspaper clippings.

She pokes through the folder and says, “Here, that’s me with the megaphone, marching the streets.”

Lynn Henderson and other activists rallied to support the Equal Rights Amendment in 1979. Photo appeared in Mesabi Daily News. Courtesy Lynn Henderson

A news photo from 1979 shows Henderson at a demonstration on the main street of the Iron Range town of Virginia, demanding equal rights for women. It was a winter day. The caption says the wind chill was minus 25.

“All I know is I was on that megaphone, and I was cold!” she says. “But we got our point across. There had never been a rally of that nature ever on the Iron Range. It was a pretty scary town. Because women didn’t have a lot of rights and women didn’t organize, women didn’t even have sports back then.”

These days, high school girls on the Iron Range have their own hockey teams. And the story of the women who broke into the mines is getting some new publicity. Hollywood is making a movie based on the Eveleth Mines case. And Henderson is pleased. She wants the movie to tell people “what we went through and what we walked through, and just appreciate if we wouldn’t have done that, where would it be today?”

The women miners who filed the lawsuit have mixed feelings about the movie. A few wish the publicity about their story would just go away. They still get prank phone calls. They still have nightmares. But several hired on as consultants for the movie. Marcy Steele met with the filmmakers. She’s not working at the mine anymore, and she says she wouldn’t want that job back. But she doesn’t regret fighting for a place for women.

“I hope somebody some day can use the [harassment] policy now that it’s there,” she says. She says when moviemakers were in town filming, “some of the women from the makeup department came and said, ‘Thank you, you don’t know what you did for us in California.’ So it was very nice to hear that! Finally to hear somebody say that they appreciated what we went through.”

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