A complex account of justice sought—and won—in a case that stretched out over a quarter-century.
Lois Jenson, the unlikely heroine of this tale by journalist Bingham (Women on the Hill, 1997) and attorney Gansler, had it tough back in 1974. A single mother of two children born out of wedlock, she lived on welfare, food stamps, and low-paying jobs, barely making ends meet in the far north of Minnesota. When the federal departments of justice and labor required nearby mills and mines to increase their numbers of female and minority employees, she found work, hard and dirty but well paid, at a taconite plant. She was one of the few women outside the front office, and when some of her fellow male coworkers greeted her with lewd remarks and suggestions, it was no surprise; the Mesabi Range’s rough, male-dominated society was still “at its core a frontier culture.” As another female employee said, local women “didn’t know enough to know the men’s behavior was offensive or to know it was belittling.” Outsider Jenson did, and she complained. She was ignored by management, harassed even further by some of the men, ostracized by some of the women. A union grievance evolved into a seemingly endless class-action lawsuit. Reconstructing courtroom back-and-forth (a snippet of examination: “When you used the word fuck in the workplace, you didn’t determine in advance whether or not someone’s sensitivities are more acute than yours, did you?”), Bingham and Gansler track the changing fortunes of the suit as it met at first with hostile judges, was heard by a more sympathetic appellate court, and eventually provided a precedent by which subsequent harassment cases would be measured.
Detailed but not dense: a sturdy addition to the literature of social justice and contemporary women’s issues.