Laura and I are old college friends. After graduating from Harvard in 1985, we traveled through Asia together--India, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan. Eventually Laura became a lawyer and I became a journalist. In 1998, we decided that we were ready to take another adventure together. One day in the spring of 1998, when the Paula Jones-Bill Clinton sexual harassment scandal was the news of the day, we met for lunch in a Dupont Circle restaurant and found ourselves talking about how we believed that sexual harassment was in danger of being trivialized. At the time, people were suing for being told Seinfeld jokes in the office. Even if President Clinton did what she said he did, the Jones suit, and the whole issue of sexual harassment law had become a political football.
Although sexual harassment laws had evolved throughout the 1980s and 1990s to a point where the workplace had finally become a much more equal, friendly place for women to be, we agreed that discussion of sexual harassment in the popular culture was happening in a vacuum. Somehow, the issue had become unmoored from its original purpose. We realized that in the seven years since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the American workplace had undergone a revolution, and we wanted to find out who the revolutionaries were.
Laura did an exhaustive search of the sexual harassment case history. There she found an unheralded but legally important case called Jenson v. Eveleth. When we read over the case, we were shocked by the severity of the sexual abuse the women suffered in the Minnesota iron mine where they worked, and we were also amazed that the case these women brought in Federal court had created important legal precedent--the first class action ever, for sexual harassment. We contacted the plaintiffs' lawyer, Paul Sprenger, who lived in Washington, D.C., and he agreed that it was an important story that deserved to be told, and he said he would cooperate with us.
In October of 1998, when Sprenger and his clients were on the brink of a fourth trial and also in the midst of settlement negotiations, Laura and I flew to Minneapolis where Sprenger introduced us to seven of the women in a hotel conference room. After meeting with us, they agreed to share their stories. In January of 1999, on a frigid, icy day, I made my first trip to the Iron Range--a place in the farthest northern reaches of the country, one hour north of Duluth and just two hours east of Fargo, North Dakota. There, I spent several days with Lois Jenson in her apartment pouring over 12 boxes of documents, journal entries, and scrapbooks that she had kept since 1975. I began the slow process of going through her papers and interviewing her extensively as I recreated what had happened in her life from 1975 to the present. Over the next year and a half, I returned to the Iron Range eight more times, where I spent countless hours with Lois. I also interviewed most of the other women involved in the case, local experts, and a few reluctant male miners. Penetrating this small insular Iron Range community was a huge reporting challenge. Most people were suspicious of strangers, and did not want to talk about the case. The company, in turn, did not allow me to see the mine, so I had to visit the facility undercover, as the out-of-town cousin of one of the miners.
Meanwhile, Laura began reading the thousands of pages of court documents and interviewing lawyers and legal experts. We met with Paul Sprenger every month over lunch at the same restaurant in Dupont Circle, where he reviewed the case for us chronologically. Neither the three lawyers who had represented the company nor the company management would agree to talk to us. But the court documents--depositions, trial transcripts, briefs, and exhibits--gave Laura and me a reliable record from which to tell both sides of the story of what happened during the three dramatic trials.
We started writing in the summer of 2000--I drafted the first half of the book about the women's lives in Minnesota, and Laura wrote the second half of the book, which covered the three trials. Then we exchanged chapters and added to and edited each other's chapters. The whole project took a total of three years, from our first meeting with the women in October of 1998, to finishing the final draft of the manuscript in October of 2001.
Clara Bingham is a former White House correspondent for Newsweek and the author of Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress. She has written for Talk, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and The Washington Monthly. She graduated from Harvard University in 1985.
Laura Leedy Gansler is a lawyer specializing in alternative dispute resolution and securities law. She's a former adjunct law professor at American University. After graduating from Harvard University in 1985, Gansler received a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1989.