AAUW CHAPTER AND NWHM HONOR THE REAL WOMEN OF “NORTH COUNTRY”
Susan Jollie’s Letter to the Eveleth Mill Women on Behalf of the NWHM
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, D.C., 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.