Lois Jenson was one of the first women ever hired by Eveleth Mines, as featured in the film North Country — but that’s not the main reason we’re celebrating her today. In a series of cases spanning more than a decade (1984-1998), Jenson became the first person to ever win a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the U.S.
The mines of Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range once produced nearly all the United States’ iron and steel. With four family members already working in the industry, Jenson knew mining work was tough work before she applied for the job in 1974. She was a single mother who had the opportunity to make a much higher paycheck than the one she took home from her minimum wage credit union job. She took the opportunity.
Jenson experienced harassment from day one — from “you don’t belong here” dismissals littered with gendered curse words to a 15-minute assault from her supervisor in the electrical department. The stories she heard from other female co-workers were similarly appalling: sexually explicit graffiti, semen in their lockers.
Miners wear a fair amount of protective gear: a hard hat, goggles, etc. Jenson added one more addition to the uniform: a bulky waistcoat. In an interview with The Guardian, Jenson referred to this as “her armor” — protective gear from the men in the mines.
The armor needed legal fortification. When management refused to intervene, Jenson filed a complaint with the Minnesota human rights commission. Her legal gains were slow and hard fought: When Eveleth Mines refused to pay Jenson $10,000 in damages and institute a sexual harassment policy like the state demanded, Jenson filed a civil suit for sexual discrimination, which she won in 1991.
Justice continued to trickle in for Jenson over the next 8 years. As did PTSD and chronic fatigue.
Ultimately, Jenson has said the personal trauma was worth it for the gains she made for women in the workplace. In a conversation with the Minnesota Women’s Press, Jenson explained that she was most proud of how the visibility of her case led other companies to implement sexual harassment policies:
“Getting that policy in place was very important. Once you have a policy in place then you have something; you know you have some ground to stand on and you’re a little bit stronger.”
The fight to end sexual harassment and assault in the workplace continues. In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was asked to investigate 6,758 claims of sexual harassment — a number that has been steadily declining over the past several years (7,944 cases in 2010). Only about half of the claims result in charges. According to a Huffington Post YouGov poll, only 27 percent of the people who experienced sexual harassment reported the incident.
In 2006, Charlize Theron received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance in North Country, the movie inspired by the experience of Jenson and the other female miners. To prepare for the role, Theron worked with many women from the case on set. They helped her understand how the rulings impacted their lives.
“Legislation has changed the fact that when there is a complaint it has to be taken seriously, but legislation doesn't change how people think overnight,” Theron explained to The Guardian. “And you really realize this when you're there, that we've come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.”