"Brilliantly reported, documented and written, Class Action is only about sexual harassment in name. The real story is about the too-frequent indifference and absurdity of both the workplace and our legal system. Protagonist Lois Jenson, a worker in a Minnesota mine, is a real Erin Brockovitch. Her war is not only that of every woman, but of every citizen."
-- Bob Woodward, author of All the President's Men and Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and the American Boom
"Fascinating and chilling, with powerful echoes of Silkwood. I could not put Class Action down."
-- David Halberstam, author of War in a Time of Peace and The Best and the Brightest
"Bingham and Gansler tell the riveting story of the landmark victory won by Lois Jenson and twenty other women who worked in Minnesota's Eveleth Mines. Back-breaking labor and heart-breaking harassment were their daily fare-so if you've ever complained about taking on a man's job, stop whining and read this brilliant book."
-- Linda Fairstein, former prosecutor and bestselling author of The Deadhouse and Final Jeopardy
"Class Action tells an important story, of how the law can effect change and bring justice into our lives. As women, we are indebted to Lois Jensen for her courage and Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler for giving it voice."
-- Caroline Kennedy, editor of Profiles in Courage for Our Time and In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action
"Most of us learn about law from the tidy conclusions of judges' opinions, but Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler reveal a greater truth about our legal system in Class Action. This always riveting, often horrific, account of a landmark sexual harassment case is an unsparing look at the real nature of judicial progress--and the costs of even the most dramatic courtroom victories."
-- Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy and Too Close to Call
The New Yorker
July 22, 2002
When in the nineteen-seventies, women started working at Eveleth, an iron mine in Minnesota's Mesabi Range, they were seen by both miners and management as unwelcome interlopers, and were greeted with open sexual antagonism. Pornographic graffiti, incessant propositioning, sexual insults, groping, stalking: Eveleth brought new meaning to the words "hostile working environment." Yet the company did little to stop the abuse, and the union's sense of working-class solidarity did not extend to women's rights. This riveting, assiduously well-reported account follows the tortuous class-action lawsuit that finally improved working conditions at Eveleth and redefined sexual-harassment law. Although the women who sued Eveleth were ultimately vindicated when the company settled, they endured an agonizing decade of depositions, accusations, and trials. "I felt like a house had been dropped on my head," one woman said. Class Action is a useful reminder of the emotional and psychological cost of waging even the most successful--and justified--lawsuits.
Back to top
The recent take on sexual-harassment law is that it's sucking all the fun and flirtation out of the workplace, leaving men afraid to so much as pat a female co-worker on the back, lest they get slapped with a lawsuit. Critics argue that the "hostile work environment" provisions of the law encourage trivial suits filed by ladies who are oversensitive or whose only recourse against "The Boss From Hell," as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., puts it. So the only recourse is to accuse him of sexually abusive behavior, since you can't take a higher-up to court for plain old cruelty or stupidity.
There's truth in these arguments but anyone who doubts that sexually hostile work environments still exist should read the account of life at a Minnesota iron mine in the '70s and '80s in Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by journalist Clara Bingham and lawyer Laura Leedy Gansler. Here's a partial list of the "jokes," as the male miners called them, to which women workers were subjected: a guy repeatedly ejaculating on a woman's clothes stored in her locker; two foremen who drove two women into the middle of the woods in a company truck and ordered them to "service them"; the male co-worker who broke into several women's homes at night; the crotch-grabbers. There was such an inadequate number of portable toilets that at least one woman became severely dehydrated from avoiding fluids. "If you want to work like a man, you got to learn to piss like a man," a union official advised.
"We were shocked by the extent of the harassment," Bingham says. "And legally, the case was so important, but no one knew about it, except employment-discrimination lawyers."
The book follows the story of lead plaintiff Lois Jenson, a single mother and one of the first four women hired by the mine. At first, Lois puts up and shuts up, so ecstatic is she to be making a decent wage. But she grows increasingly despairing as she's harassed in ways large and small, most creepily by a boss who is a type of pathetic but scarily obsessive loser many women will recognize.
One interesting subtext in Class Action is that whistle-blowers like Lois, who only become more maniacal about righting a wrong the more they're attacked and ostracized, usually aren't the most likable or reasonable people. Lois, we read, was "stubborn but prissy, moral but flirtatious," not to mention self-righteous. "You'll never have victims who are all angels," Bingham says. "They still deserve to work in a nonthreatening environment." Amen. By the time you're halfway through the book, Lois could have flounced through the mine in a see-through dress and you'd still think she got a raw deal. But in some ways the women suffer the worst abuse after they get their day in court. It's more than ten years before they see a cent, by which time they're so beaten down--by workplace retaliation and lawyers wielding the trusty "nuts and sluts" defense--that it's hard not to agree with the attorney who says her clients probably would have been better off not filing suit.
Could such a horrendous case happen again? Bingham and Gansler aren't sure, but it did usher in some reforms: Almost all companies now have anti-harassment policies, and the case set precedent that protects litigants from having their every sexual contact, gynecological malady, and shrink visit paraded in court. But even as I write this I am reading about more than 100 women workers at a factory in suburban Chicago who are suing the Dial Corporation. At issue: allegations of forced kisses, a shirt ripped off a woman's chest, a "best breasts" contest, a pink penis carved out of soap...
Back to top
The Washington Post
July 28, 2002
While Anita Hill was testifying against Clarence Thomas, another case of sexual harassment was making history. In 1991, Jenson v. Eveleth Mines wrested a landmark ruling from the courts that granted women employees the right to sue as a class. The details of the case, largely glossed over at the time, are the subject of Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. The book chronicles the decade-long struggle of Lois Jenson and her co-workers to get their employer, Eveleth Mines, to react to the treatment they were getting. As the authors make brilliantly, horrifyingly clear, the kind of behavior these women were subjected to isn't teasing or pressuring or flirting that goes too far. This is brutality. This is terrorism.
Jenson started work in 1975 at the Eveleth iron mines in northern Minnesota. On her second day of work, a man walked by her, and "neither looking at her nor breaking his stride he said, 'You [expletive] women don't belong here. If you knew what was good for you, you'd go home where you belong.' " One man she had started dating taunted her in front of his friends and later, as she squatted to handle a heavy weight, grabbed her between her legs hard enough to knock her over, leaving a big handprint on her crotch.
The women were subjected daily to dirty jokes, dildoes, obscene graffiti. A man ejaculated on a woman's sweater in her locker. Two women were driven by a co-worker to a remote location and were [probably] about to be assaulted when luck intervened. Another was stalked by a co-worker who left her explicit notes describing what he'd like to do to her. One man twisted a woman's nose between his knuckles until blood streamed down her face. Another hit her in the arm and "called her names like bitch, [expletive] and whore."
Unable to get help from the union or management, Jenson brought suit. She was vilified not just by the men but by the women, too, trying to protect their jobs. During 10 years of litigation, she and her co-plaintiffs endured opposing counsels' psychological torture. And there was no Erin Brockovich ending. After the judge awarded skimpy damages, the case went to appeal, and in the end, the plaintiffs settled. But the confidentiality agreement meant the women were now scorned for their presumed wealth. "We never got a chance to set the record straight," Jenson said.
Class Action has the formidable job of creating a story out of a case of relatively arcane significance, with a huge cast of characters, a lengthy and complicated time span, and a relentlessly demoralizing narrative. But Bingham and Gansler have come up with mesmerizing, complex portraits of the participants in a beautifully paced narrative. Their reporting is impeccable. The prose may at times be plain, but that's the price of choosing verifiable facts over imagined drama. The story is dramatic enough.
Back to top
San Francisco Chronicle
July 14, 2002
Class Action is the riveting and engrossing story of Lois Jenson, who, like Anita Hill, publicized the ubiquity of sexual harassment and, as a result, bore the brunt of vicious attacks by those who refused to believe what she had endured at work.
When Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas in October 1991, Americans received a crash course in sexual harassment. Before the late 1970s, few people knew what to call such relentless predatory behavior. That's just the way it was. If you needed a paycheck, you just had grit your teeth and take it.
The idea that sexual harassment could be viewed as a violation of a woman's civil rights -- her ability to earn a living -- seemed, well, unimaginable.
Today, most companies, corporations and educational institutions have strict policies against sexual harassment. We owe this dramatic change, in large part, to Lois Jenson's determination to put an end to some of the most shameful sexual harassment ever described in print.
The story begins in 1975, when a local mining company in Minnesota's famous Iron Range realized that, in order to comply with affirmative action, it needed to hire a few female workers. Jenson, a single mother on welfare, desperately wanted to become a self-sufficient worker. Eager to earn the higher wages paid union members at the Eveleth Mines, she quickly applied for and got a job there.
Jenson was willing to put with all kinds of hardship. Neither the grueling hours nor the viscous soot from belching machines wore her down. But from the beginning, she and the other first female workers experienced relentless harassment from the men. They didn't just whistle, grope, fondle or yell obscenities. They didn't just write graffiti all over the mines or hang up pornographic pictures. They also ejaculated on women's sweaters, sabotaged their machines, hung nooses to scare them and stalked them at work and at home.
As a member of the union, Jenson refused to "rat" on her fellow "brothers." When a manager stalked and assaulted her, however, she felt certain that the union would protect her and the other women. But both the union and the company refused to take her complaints seriously.
That's when Jenson resorted to the courts. After five years of complaints and petitions, Jenson and a handful of co-workers received word that their sexual harassment case had been certified as a class-action suit. Though it would take 10 more years before the local mining company agreed to settle the suit, their case eventually became the cornerstone of modern sexual harassment law. In the end, it took 25 years, three trials, community ostracism and the loss of her physical and mental health before Jenson prevailed.
Class Action is compelling and powerful. Clara Bingham, a journalist, and Laura Leedy Gansler, a lawyer, have turned a complicated legal account into a gripping and unforgettable story. Even more, they have demonstrated how ordinary, poor women, at great cost to themselves, ended up advancing the cause of all working women.
Despite the media's predictable and stereotypical depiction of feminists as white middle-class activists, many women who changed recent history came from different class and ethnic backgrounds. Jenson didn't enter the mining culture with a feminist consciousness. None of her fellow female miners, in fact, knew what to call the hostility and sexual assaults they encountered. But their lives overlapped with the women's movement's efforts to name the hidden injuries they daily suffered. In 1979, law professor Catherine MacKinnon published her path-breaking study, "Sexual Harassment of Working Women." In 1980, the federal government agreed to create guidelines describing sexual harassment. Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment constituted a violation of women's civil rights. By the time Anita Hill's name became a household word in 1991, Jenson and her co-workers understood what they had suffered.
Even when the company settled the case, Jenson didn't fully realize what her gritty determination had achieved. At a party held to celebrate her victory, she still didn't see herself as a heroine who had taken on the mining industry and won: "Despair was what she knew and she had held steadfastly to it. For fifteen years, she had been buried by the fight, unable to see the greater significance of what she, and the women who stood by her, had started. There in the mist of the party chatter, she let it sink in. Jenson v. Eveleth Mines would always bear her name, but now it had a life of its own. And so did she."
We are the fortunate heirs of Jenson's heroic struggle, and her story, filled with pathos and bravery, deserves a wide and appreciative audience.
Back to top
The Los Angeles Times
June 18, 2002
Imagine working in an iron mine in northern Minnesota. You're a single mother, 27 years old, on welfare. The only way you see to support yourself and your young son is by taking a mine job, which pays nearly three times what you might earn in any other employment available to women and offers health insurance. You are among the first four women hired to work in the mine--a result of affirmative action--and although the labor is backbreaking, you can do it. What you hadn't counted on when you took the job in 1975 was the hostile work environment you'd be entering, where men resented women miners--women belonged at home, was the male rallying cry, not stealing men's jobs. The men were ruthless in their angry, crude form of harassment: groping the female miners, threatening them, posting sexually explicit drawings in the workplace, yelling obscenities, stalking.
Class Action is the tightly written, extensively researched, and well-plotted account of the first sexual harassment class action suit, started by Lois Jenson, who walked naively into Eveleth Mines and one of the ugliest job environments imaginable, an environment the mining company refused to clean up until it was forced to take action nearly 25 years later. By then, Jenson had been joined by a handful of other female miners, making up the class that sued and eventually settled the case, and in the process, established crucial legal precedent. But the ordeal also cost her: Jenson's physical and mental health deteriorated to an alarming degree.
Co-written by Clara Bingham, a journalist, and Laura Leedy Gansler, a lawyer versed in dispute resolution, Class Action combines potent narrative tension with copious research and legal information. Piecing together the ordeal with the pacing of a novel, they engage the reader from the outset; we are outraged by the behavior of particular men and incredulous that the mining company could consistently turn a blind eye, certain that a resolution must be on the horizon and then unbelieving that something so evident could take so long to rectify. Finally, reader and miners are beaten down by a legal system that allows victims to be re-victimized in court. The writing is never didactic. The human-interest element keeps readers fascinated and turning pages to see how, when--and sometimes if--the abuse would end.
Fascinating, as well, is the book's exploration into the history of sexual harassment law and affirmative action. It was not until 1976 that the courts recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which "prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin or sex."
That bill, though, was originally aimed at fighting discrimination against African Americans and did not initially include gender as a category for potential discrimination. It was added only when Howard Smith, a congressional leader of the Southern conservatives who'd opposed the bill, "tacked on what he disparagingly called the 'sex' amendment, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex." The Virginia congressman "assumed that making employment discrimination against women a federal violation would be so unpopular that it would sink the bill."
Clearly, he miscalculated, but the fact that gender discrimination wasn't even part of the original antidiscrimination act is a telling detail. The authors' use of this kind of eye-opening background places Jenson's struggle in a historically accurate light and gives readers an understanding of the heroism behind the protection workers receive today.
Although the harassment the women faced in the workplace was clearly egregious, the most abusive situation presented in the book is that of our legal system and the damage it wreaked upon the plaintiffs' personal lives as they fought for their rights. The judges of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, upon overturning an earlier ruling in the case, made this ironic statement on the miscarriage of justice: "If our goal is to persuade the American people to utilize our courts as little as possible, we have furthered that objective in this case."
Eventually, a twisted sort of justice was carried out. On the verge of a jury trial, an out-of-court settlement was reached in December 1997 and the women were paid amounts averaging $233,000. By the time it was all over, the mining company and its insurers had spent more than $15 million in a losing effort to defend their right to maintain a hostile work environment. Still, it wasn't really justice. "We never got a chance to set the record straight," Jenson said afterward, a sentiment echoed by another plaintiff. "We just wanted to be believed." This book, with its day-by-day recapitulation of what the women endured, is that opportunity.
Back to top
The Washington Monthly
These days, lawsuits over sexual harassment in the workplace seem so commonplace that it's hard to remember that it was only a decade ago that Anita Hill first uttered the term on television. But the ban on employment discrimination on the basis of gender is a relatively new phenomenon--and also something of an accident. When Congress was debating the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, it originally didn't include gender among the categories of illegal discrimination. But octogenarian Virginia Congressman Howard Smith, who opposed the act, added the word "sex" to the bill's language in an attempt to make it so unpalatable to the rest of his colleagues that it wouldn't pass. Much to his surprise, it did anyway.
Because Congress passed the law without any debate over what constituted sex discrimination, the courts had to interpret the law on their own based on cases brought by a few women brave enough to test it. In 1979, feminist scholar Catharine Mackinnon asserted that sexual harassment could not only entail a proposition in exchange for keeping a job, but that a hostile workplace, including repeated exposure to sexually offensive material as a condition of employment, could also be considered a form of illegal discrimination. But it wasn't until 1988, when a small group of women in Minnesota filed a class action against their employer, that MacKinnon's premise was tested in the courtroom.
In Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case that Chanted Sexual Harassment Law, Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler have set out to tell the story of those women who made sexual harassment law mean something. It's a horrific tale that dates back to the mid-1970s, when women were entering the workplace in droves. It's a story that should have been told long ago, but probably was overlooked because the women in this story were not college professors or even secretaries. They were blue-collar iron miners, working deep in the belly of Minnesota's Eveleth Mines. As the first women to enter that man's world, they were mercilessly punished. Their torture by the men at the mine makes office butt-pinching episodes seem like child's playŠ. But the women endured it, as the mine offered them a way out of poverty. Many were single mothers, some formerly on welfare, who desperately needed the higher-paying jobs the mine offered.
The case got its start in 1984, after the lead plaintiff, Lois Jenson, had suffered repeated and unwanted attention from her supervisor at the mine. Bingham and Gansler trace Jenson's attempts to get the company to institute a policy against harassment and reassign and discipline the man. Eveleth refused. Eventually, Jenson found her way to a prominent plaintiff's attorney who was willing to take on the case, and through a Herculean effort, they managed to assemble a class, which most of the women at the mine were too afraid to join.
And perhaps for good reason. Once the lawsuit finally went forward, the legal proceedings proved to be nearly as bad as the harassment itself. The women who were brave enough to come forward were subject to a "nuts and sluts" defense strategy. This entailed ruthless grilling by the defense counsel about their personal lives, abortions, sexual history, domestic violence, and past medical history to cast doubt on their claims that the harassment had caused many stress-related disorders from which they suffered. The case dragged on for more than a decade before it finally settled in 1999 for several million dollar--less than some other cases filed later, but because the class was so small, the actual sums given to the individual women where among the highest on record.
While their sympathies are clear, Bingham and Gansler present a fairly even-handed account of the case, acknowledging, for instance, that the lawyers did not have perfect clients. They let the reader conclude whether Jenson pursued the case because she was a little nuts or became nuts because she pursued the case. What is crystal clear, though is that none of the women deserved the treatment she had endured at the mine. And in the end, that's what the legal system ruled, too, making Jenson v. Eveleth a landmark case in the brief history of sexual harassment law.
Back to top
The New York Observer
Life is particular and messy, the law strives to be algebraic and clean, and to get from one to the other, you often need some ripping good storytelling. It's no surprise, then, that the interests of the tort lawyer line up suspiciously well with those of the screenwriter and the long-form literary journalist: Little Guy v. Megacorp, pitting human spirit against insurmountable odds‹these storylines go over big with the jury, as they do in the pitch meeting or at the box office. Which explains why Class Action is being positioned as the latest agitpop blockbuster in the tradition of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich. But in fact, authors Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy have done something far more courageous and interesting: They've let the truth spoil a good story.
In the mid-70's, Lois Jenson, an attractive young single mom being nickel-and-dimed to death by welfare and low-paying jobs, started work in the Eveleth Mines. Eveleth lies in the northernmost reaches of Minnesota, a tundra-and-grime precinct best known for giving us Bob Dylan (he sang about the mines in "North Country Blues") and a series of marquee lefties, from the communist Gus Hall to Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. But it's also the largest producer of iron ore in the world, and while its politicians may be left-progressive, the local flavor of left is male-dominated, a union man's left; as the authors tell us, the Mesabi Iron Range is practically its own kingdom, a world of beer and ice hockey, of interminable, dark winters and very, very brightly delineated gender roles.
From the get-go, Lois Jenson encountered brutal hazing at the hands of her new male co-workers. (The absentee-owned mining company wasn't much help: A couple of gelid interlopers, dressed like the Blues Brothers, came down from the home office, asked a few desultory questions, then whisked themselves back to Cleveland.) So far, everyone passes the screen test: Lois is young and pretty, many of the men are barbaric, and the corporation is indifferent and remote. Furthermore, "sexual harassment" was only just emerging as a legal concept. Graffiti, pin-ups, dildos, stalking: Absent the law's algebra, everything remains an isolated incident, stranded in its lonely specificity. The mine's few women were caught in a cycle of self-blame, too ashamed to share their horror stories. As Lois explains to the authors, "The problem was, there was no name for it." The Eveleth women drew the obvious conclusion: The men didn't want women in the mines, and they used sexual aggression as a way of marking their territory.
In a very Erin Brockovich moment, Lois Jenson arrived on the doorstep of Paul Sprenger, a star plaintiff lawyer specializing in employment discrimination. Hollywood zooms in--Mr. Sprenger is trim and handsome, a "former track star," a brilliant litigator--but Class Action has become complex and thickly descriptive. More than 10 years have elapsed since Lois first entered the mines, and we've been spared few details of her hard life. Furthermore, it's not clear that Ms. Jenson is sexual harassment's pioneer anymore: The term is in wider circulation, the young Catherine MacKinnon has published her landmark Sexual Harassment and the Working Woman, and the EEOC has laid down federal guidelines for both "quid pro quo" and "hostile work environment" claims. The great catalyst for a shift in public attitude‹the gruesome cross-examination of Anita Hill by the old men of the Senate‹had come and gone long before Jenson v. Eveleth was decided.
Manners can shift, lip service can be paid, sensitivity roundtables scheduled, but it takes the threat of litigation to put the fear of God into corporate America. In Eveleth, Mr. Sprenger had the makings of a watershed lawsuit. As Class Action makes clear, the plaintiffs did not suffer a series of unwanted but innocuous overtures‹frankly, we're talking overture, prelude, theme, variations and the cab ride home. Also, the policy-level discrimination on the company's part was plain to see. There were no women's bathrooms; a hangover was an excuse for being late but a sick child wasn't, and so on. Harassment law, however, lies at the precarious intersection of human sexuality and human reason, and the Germinal-like confinement of mine life did not make retroactively applying legal niceties any easier. The plaintiffs' lives had been gritty and exacting‹and when it came to salty posturing, many of them gave as good as they got.
No one here prepped at Spence and finished at Sarah Lawrence, least of all Lois Jenson; to their credit, the authors only rarely force her into gauzy soft focus. By the time she was asked to give testimony‹we've made it well into the 90's now‹Ms. Jenson had started to deteriorate badly, subsisting on the psychotropic equivalent of a Long Island iced tea: Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Pamelor. At times she was a devastating witness‹she had obsessively kept logbooks detailing her every maltreatment‹but at other times, incoherent and disastrous. Conditioned to want more Perry Mason plot points, Lois whines about the lack of "theatrics"; she complains that her lawyers don't "show emotion." In fact, there is good raw theater here: The corporation's lawyers blow in, savage as a Minnesota winter, and drag the women through the standard nuts-and-sluts, blame-the-victim defense.
But in the end, in 1997, decades of pinching, grabbing, staring and scoffing were collated together and labeled for what they really are: totally unacceptable. "The emotional harm, brought about by this record of human indecency, sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit of each plaintiff," wrote the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. "The humiliation and degradation suffered by these women is irreparable." Gloriously, Lois Jenson and her fellow women miners won the first-ever class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit. No doubt the usual team of hacks, D-girls and associate producers will transform this complicated saga into a tidy three-act screenplay, replete with the script doctor's bag of tricks: "reveals," buttons, redemption and uplift. But it's important to remember the real lesson of Class Action, driven home so thoroughly by Ms. Bingham and Ms. Leedy's dogged legal anthropology: You don't need bright-line heroism and villainy to bundle together disparate acts of everyday degradation, name them Š and demand justice.
Back to top