It’s easy to assume that women who broke into men’s professions in the 1970s were pioneering feminists, women who had a vision and wanted to change the world. Some were. But for many women, it was simply matter of survival.
Many women in Minnesota’s iron mines endured the hard work and dirt and abuse from coworkers because there wasn’t really another choice. A job in the mine meant escape. An escape from poverty. An escape from a husband with a violent temper. When men tried to shove them out of the mines, the women were forced into an ugly fight that many of them didn’t want.
They couldn’t have imagined their case would take 11 years, or that it would help to set in motion changes that would be felt across the Range and across the country.
Catherine Winter continues our report.
A reminder: This program contains graphic descriptions and language.
Winter: In 1977, iron miners across northern Minnesota and Michigan held a long, bitter strike.
Striker: Big people been running this country long enough. They’ve neglected the working man. The working people. By God, now it’s time for us to show 'em we’re still here and we are people.
Winter: The miners were virtually all working men. But women walked the picket lines, too. Jeannie Aho was working at US Steel’s Minntac mine. She remembers going to a union rally and seeing an unusual sight: another woman getting up to speak.
Jeannie Aho: I said, "Who is that?" because I didn’t know there were any other women active in the unions and I was getting active in Minntac union and I got to know her and we went to union school together and we got to be good friends.
Winter: Jeannie Aho’s new friend was Pat Kosmach. She worked at a different mine, Eveleth Mines. At union school, they learned how to negotiate, and how to handle problems on the job, though no one ever mentioned dealing with sexual harassment. Pat Kosmach is dead now, but Jeannie Aho remembers being shocked by her friend’s troubles with some of the men at the mines.
Aho: She saw things that I never had to put up with. She used to tell me all the stuff that was going on. You know, when it started nobody had ever heard of going to court and suing because of it. Nobody really knew what do to. We just thought, well, you had to take it because you were in a man’s world.
Winter: In fact, at the time, it was perfectly legal for men to try to make their female co-workers so miserable that they would quit. The women had never heard of anyone suing over it because no one had ever done it. It wasn’t illegal. Sex discrimination had been illegal since 1964, but for years, sex discrimination had a narrow definition. Law professor Melissa Hart says at first, sex discrimination only meant refusing to hire or promote someone based on gender.
Melissa Hart: But it wasn’t until the mid-70s that the notion that sexual harassment could also be discrimination was also recognized.
Winter: And even then, Hart says, a woman could only sue for sexual harassment if her boss demanded sex from her and fired her when she said no.
Hart: It wasn’t until the 80s that courts started looking at the notion that a work environment that was pervaded by sexual harassment could be sex discrimination, even if no firing occurred.
Winter: So at first, the women at the mines had two choices: put up with it, or quit.
Aho: Pat didn’t quit because she said she’d be damned if she’d quit. This was the best paying job she’d ever had.
Winter: Jeannie Aho says her friend Pat Kosmach was divorced and had to support her kids. There weren’t other good paying jobs on the Range – especially for women.
Aho: You could be a hairdresser, you could be a meter maid, you could be a nurse, go to school, but for somebody like Pat, those jobs were impossible. She tried to work hours that her kids were in school. She needed a decent job, she needed the medical benefits. She didn’t want to be on welfare. She wanted to support her family. She needed that job. She really did.
Winter: As women around the country broke into good paying men’s professions, they reveled in their new financial independence. Suddenly, women could leave bad marriages, or not get married at all. Denise Vesel says when she was a child, she saw her mom beg her dad for money. She never wanted to depend on a man like that. So she was thrilled to get hired at Eveleth Mines:
Vesel: Growing up with six kids in a family, there wasn’t really money for much and it’s like, now I have complete freedom of doing what I want. I can buy ten t-shirts if I want. I don’t have to go buy them on sale. I can do what I want. And it felt so great just to go to a store and whip out the money and pay for it, or buy a new pair of boots when you want or buy a couple pairs of jeans and don’t have to ask permission.
Winter: And Vesel loved the work. Her co-worker Jan Wollin did too. After all, mining was a prestige job on the Range. Wollin had never imagined she could be a steelworker like her dad. The only women who’d done that were replacement workers during World War II. While men were away fighting, women helped mine the ore to make steel for tanks and ships and airplanes. But when the men came back, the mines sent the women home. Jan Wollin never forgot the time she met a woman who’d been a wartime worker at a mine.
Jan Wollin: And that impressed me. I was a little girl, 1952. I always said, "I want to be like her." And I told my dad when I was a kid growing up, I said, "Oh daddy, I wanna drive that truck. I just wanna drive one of them big trucks!" And I thought a 35-ton truck was huge. And he said, "well I don’t think the day will ever come [that] you’ll ever drive one." Well I got hired in the mine. Oh boy, I had to go train on them big trucks. Well these big trucks was 120-tonners. I’m drivin that truck and I stop, put the truck in neutral and got out and I said, "How do you like Me now?" And I told my mom, I called my mom and said, "Mom, I drove that big truck last night!" She said, "Your dad would be so proud of you."
Winter: But for some other women, driving those big trucks wasn’t so much fun. Kathy Anderson drove a truck out in the pit, where there was nowhere to go to the bathroom. She was told if she wanted to work like a man, she’d have to piss like a man. So she tried to hold it for hours, sometimes all day. She got bladder and kidney infections. And men harassed her. They left lewd notes in her truck. Anderson later told CNN about a supervisor who kept showing her a pink rubber penis:
Kathy Anderson: He would take a phallus about this big out in front of the entire crew, which were all males except myself. And he would put it in my face and say to me, "Kathy, what would you do with a piece of meat like this?"
Winter: Some of the women went to Pat Kosmach. Since she was a union leader, maybe she could get the union to help. The union did try to settle some disputes, but union leaders said there wasn’t much they could do, because the company had no policy on sexual harassment, and the issue wasn’t mentioned in the union contract. Jeanne Aho says the lack of union support deeply disappointed Pat Kosmach. Finally, as a last resort, Kosmach decided to sue.
Aho: You’re edged into a corner and you either come out fighting or you lay down and … die. And she wasn’t ready to lay down and die. And if she had to go out and fight for all the other women, she would, because it was only fair that women should work there, too.
Winter: It was 1988. By then, a sexual harassment suit wasn’t unheard of. A survey that year by Working Woman magazine found that a third of the Fortune 500 companies surveyed had been sued for harassment. One of Pat Kosmach’s coworkers wanted to sue too. Her name was Lois Jenson. But the women couldn’t find a lawyer within 200 miles willing to take the case. Finally, they talked to Paul Sprenger in Minneapolis. Sprenger was intrigued.
Paul Sprenger: It was clear that there was pervasive sexual harassment rising to the level of being a hostile environment for any woman to work there. It was pretty awful stuff.
Winter: Sprenger thought he could use this case to try a new legal tactic. He wanted to show that a hostile work environment could be so bad that it affected all of the women at a workplace. For the first time ever, he wanted to bring a sexual harassment case as a class action. He asked the two women to find a third plaintiff, someone who worked out in the pit. They did. Kathy Anderson, the truck driver, agreed to join. Sprenger filed a suit demanding that the company pay damages and adopt a sexual harassment policy. Jeanne Aho remembers talking to her friend Pat afterward.
Aho: She was excited, really excited, she thought there was an end in sight, But at work, it became a revenge thing. If you though you had it bad before, wait. Guys that weren’t part of the problem became part of the problem because they were defending their buddies. It was hard on her. Real hard on her. She was afraid sometimes. You should never have to be afraid to go to work or afraid to be at home, afraid your tires are gonna get slashed, stuff like that.
Winter: Some men were appalled by the harassment, but they were afraid to say so. Brian Lahti was a maintenance mechanic at Eveleth Mines.
Brian Lahti: I had to go to that job, too. You had to be careful how you walked and talked and treated the whole thing.
Winter: Other men were sure the women were lying, that they filed the lawsuit just to get money from the company. Vern Niedermeier drove a service truck at the mine. He carted supplies, ran errands, and drove people where they needed to go. He says the women were out to get the men.
Vern Niedermeier: If you had to, myself, if I had to take a girl to the clinic, I’d go with somebody else in my truck. There would be three of us, because things were getting that bad. You didn’t know. If you touched ‘em, they’d go in and complain.
Winter: In fact, most of the other women at the mine did not support the suit. Some women even signed a petition saying they disagreed with it. Jan Wollin was one of the signers. Wollin says things changed after the suit was filed. One day, she was waiting for an elevator with a maintenance man.
Jan Wollin: I walked into the elevator and he said, "I don’t think I can ride the elevator with you," and I said, "why not?" and he goes, "Well, I’m afraid of this lawsuit." And I said, "Get your butt in here. I said "I’m Jan, okay, remember me, I’m Jan." You know. I said, "I’ve never had any trouble with you. I’ve never had any trouble with any of the guys. What makes you think I would cry rape?" "Well," he said, "some of them would." I said, "I’m not some of them. I’m Jan. I’m not like the other women."
Winter: In fact, many women testified for the company in federal court. They said they didn’t feel harassed at Eveleth Mines and they weren’t offended by the pornography or the swearing. But in spite of the opposition from their coworkers, the women won the first round in court. It was 1991. Their victory made news around the country.
News broadcaster: U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum has ruled that all women who have been employed at or applied for work at Eveleth Taconite since 1983 may be included in a class action suit against the company.
Winter: 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.
Clarence Thomas: I have suffered immensely as these very serious charges were leveled against me. I have been racking my brains and eating my insides out trying to think of what I could have said or done to Anita Hill to lead her to allege that I was interested in her in more than a professional way and that I talked with her about pornographic or X-rated films.
Winter: Suddenly, sexual harassment was all over the news. The number of people filing harassment claims with the federal government shot up over the next year. 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, like Jan Wollin. She remembers the incident that changed her mind.
Wollin: I had went into the office and was checking, about overtime and the foreman patted me on the butt, you know, and I said, "Don’t do that!" Well, he did it again. He said, "Oh, you know you like it babe."
Winter: Wollin went to the boss to complain.
Wollin: He said, "Well what happened." I says, "I don’t appreciate being patted on the ass." I said, "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 said, "I’m gonna have a set of bloody nuts in my hand." Well, they laughed. They thought it was funnier’n hell, 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.
Vesel: My husband told me at first, he goes, "If you join that lawsuit," he goes, "I’m divorcing you."
Winter: Denise Vesel initially opposed the lawsuit, 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. In fact, he was dying. The lawsuit offered the possibility of money. And revenge.
Vesel: Whether he liked it or not, I was gonna join. And, I … I think it was a whole year I went without him knowing, and then I had to go down and do a deposition, and I had to finally tell him and ohh, [laughs] that went over like a lead balloon. He did not like that. Well there’s a lotta things in life I don’t like either. When he started getting sicker and sicker, it’s like, "Go ahead, divorce me. I’m gonna do what I wanna do and you’re not gonna control me anymore."
Winter: Vesel had a fight ahead of her in court, too. To get damages, each woman had to prove she’d suffered harm from harassment at the mine. Lawyers for the mine tried to prove that if the women were psychologically scarred, it was from other events in their lives, not their years at the mine. A retired judge was appointed to hear this part of the case. Twenty years later, lawyer Paul Sprenger says he’s still appalled at the personal questions the judge let the company lawyers ask.
Sprenger: He allowed depositions of former lovers from 30 years prior. I mean, it was ludicrous. Examination of their entire life history from their birth records and every hospitalization they ever had. It was awful.
Winter: Denise Vesel remembers the defense lawyers asking her what she and her husband did at motorcycle rallies. They asked, Were bikers into wife swapping?
Vesel: If I’d ever had venereal disease. If I’d ever had an abortion. I mean just getting personal. Did you ever have intercourse with anyone on the job? Who did you have intercourse with? How many times? It was like, no. When they started subpoenaing women’s personal records, they found out things they shouldn’t have. That was bad. That was wrong. That was evil.
Winter: One of the lawyers for the mine, David Goldstein, says the blame for these invasive questions lies partly with the women’s own lawyers. If they had simply claimed the women suffered mental anguish, these questions would not have been necessary, he says, but the women’s lawyers were arguing they had diagnosable mental disorders.
David Goldstein: We were solely asking the questions and obtaining the material that you would need in order to do a proper psychiatric evaluation. Many psychiatric problems have their origins in childhood or early life. You need to go back that far in order to understand the record.
Winter: Goldstein, says they were not trying to scare women into dropping out of the suit. But one woman did quit: Jan Wollin. One of her sons had been convicted of murder a few years before, and she didn’t want to relive that. Her arthritis was aggravated by stress. And besides, she says, what she really wanted was an apology, and she got one.
Wollin: We went to court and the foreman was on the stand. They asked him if he ever had patted me. And he said, "Yes I did." And he said right on the stand, he said, "Jan I’m sorry." He said, "I was out of line. He said I never should have done that." And I was happy. I was happy.
Winter: When the trial was finally over, the other women would not be so happy. They had spent months making their case, but the judge did not believe them.
Coming up, the end of the lawsuit, and the workplace today.
You can see photographs of the mines, read stories and see photos of women who worked in the mines during World War II, and share your story about changes in the workplace, at our website: americanradioworks.org. You'll also find information on ordering a CD of this program. That's all at americanradioworks.org.
Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.