An obituary reminds of the power of Jensen v. Eveleth Mines

This is how I remember seeing Eveleth Taconite's production plant through the marshes near where I grew up south of Eveleth.

This is how I remember seeing Eveleth Taconite’s production plant through the marshes near where I grew up south of Eveleth. (PHOTO: Boldt Construction)

The New York Times ran an obituary this week for a Minnesota native and successful lawyer. Though this attorney had won many cases securing equality, fairness and non-discrimination in the workplace, the Times spent most of its time describing just one: the class action suit brought by a miner, Lois Jensen, on behalf of her female co-workers against Eveleth Taconite on the grounds of sexual harassment.

From the NY Times obituary:

Paul C. Sprenger, a Washington lawyer who represented female iron miners in Minnesota in the nation’s first class-action lawsuit focused on sexual harassment — at the time an emerging legal concept — died on Monday while on vacation in Curaçao. He was 74.

Paul Sprenger was indeed the lawyer who represented Lois Jensen and her co-workers against Eveleth Taconite. The case, which inspired a book “Class Action,” and a movie “North Country, essentially created the concept of sexual harassment law, establishing the term “hostile workplace.”

Though emotionally crippling to everyone involved, especially the women, perhaps even to an entire generation of men and women on the Iron Range, the case paved a path forward for women in the workplace all over the country. Here, too, in Minnesota’s iron mining industry.

Yes, Woody Harrelson played a character loosely based on Sprenger in the movie.

You don’t hear many mentions of the Eveleth Taconite case in day-to-day conversation around here these days. Hard to talk about three decades of ugliness.

All I can think about are the multitude of ways I am connected to the case, all of which explains why sexual harassment on the Iron Range was so painful and so difficult to uproot.

While I moved around the Range quite a bit as a kid, we mostly lived somewhere in view of the steam cloud at Eveleth Taconite. The place was literally the backdrop to my understanding of my homeland.

My grandfather from Keewatin carpooled with Lois Jensen when she lived in Pengilly and both worked at EvTac. They didn’t know each other well, but drove together for about two years during the bad years. He talks about how the guys were rough on her, but always thought she was brushing off the comments. When “Class Action” came out, he ran out to buy the book. Mostly, he said, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t mentioned in it (he wasn’t). He always thought he was nice to her, but was worried there was something he said wrong.

That’s another reason this was such a mess. Guys had no idea what was appropriate or not. Most of them had little education beyond high school. The cultural practice of men working and women staying home with large broods of children was still very strong entering the 1970s and ’80s. None of it made sense to them, or their wives. “Women are being harassed? Why are they even there?”

But what was done was truly awful, and the emotional scars on the women were much deeper than even the movie “North Country” could show. The wife of one of my co-workers was part of the class action suit. My co-worker said what affected her most wasn’t the individual incidents, but the way that time changed her. The constant threat of verbal or physical abuse, perhaps even assault, had a psychological effect on these women. They had to discard their feminine selves to defend their bodies and their ability to provide for their families. Not for a few years. For a few decades.

Indeed, most miners did not harass women. That’s what makes so many on the Iron Range mad about the case. “Why must so many men be vilified over the complaints of just a few women?” (Most female miners did not join the suit). The solidarity that served the region well when it emerged from the immigrant forges of the early 20th Century was suddenly blocking our ability to see ourselves, to regulate behavior. So even in 2013, local papers ran articles about female miners who thought there were NO problems in the mines. Even now.

It’s so much better today, though still bad in many ways. Ignorance, particularly among younger people, is fading, however. If I had a young daughter who wanted to work in mining, I would encourage her. This progress was only possible through the work of people like Mr. Stengler, who has now left us.

UPDATE (1/4/15): It was interesting to see the different reactions to this piece. I did not intend it to be the definitive take on the matter, merely some thoughts I had after reading about Mr. Stengler’s passing. As I said in the comments, none of what I wrote here was designed to excused the terrible behavior by some and the outrageous inaction by most peers and authorities in these matters. I was merely channeling and addressing the attitudes people around here seem to hold.

One interesting note, though, I heard from my aunt who said that as a teenager she traveled with my grandfather to Duluth as he was called to testify in the Jensen v. Eveleth Mines hearing. He would have been out of the workforce a number of years after his accident at the mines then. She seemed to recall that his testimony was as a character witness for Lois Jensen. I have much to ask him when we speak next!

Importantly, this re-opened the discussion. This event in Range history is vitally important. Some of our problems are political and economic, but many more are rooted in cultural attitudes that need to change. This was, and is, one of them.


  1. David Gray says

    I don’t know precisely what was done to these women but from the way you obliquely describe it the behavior sounds pretty bad. I don’t see where a lack of a college education or being raised in a sensible (traditional) family environment excuses any of that. I think the question of whether women really belonged there is a valid one. But it doesn’t excuse rudeness or lack of courtesy and what you say makes it sound like it went well beyond that. My grandfather, who I knew very well, was pulled out of the U of M after his first year because his brother died and he needed to work the farm. All of his social environments were very traditional. I cannot imagine him behaving badly towards a woman in such a setting. It is simply inconceivable. Indeed his traditional upbringing would be one of the things that would militate against that.

    • Liz Kuoppala says

      Thanks David. Totally agree. It doesn’t take a college education to know sexual assault is wrong or leaving bowel movements in lockers is wrong or treating women as anything other than human beings is wrong.

      Men created a culture of hostility toward women on the Iron Range that they think benefits men and so it remains pervasive. I do hope the good guys continue to find the courage to change it one small step at a time. There are lots of good guys who know that when women are treated with respect and given access to opportunity, we all win.

    • ” I think the question of whether women really belonged there is a valid one”. And there it is….subtly lurking beneath the surface….still. It’s big of you to agree the women were treated horribly but your comment indicates that you somehow believe that men had more rights to these better paying jobs than women. Why? Most of those jobs did not require any prior experience. ANY human being willing to put forth the mental and physical effort to learn and perform the job, no matter their sex, should be given the opportunity to do so. “I think the question of whether the women really belonged there is a valid one”??? PLEASE.

  2. The incidents have been fairly well documented (the book and movie describe and depict true events, though there is disagreement about the frequency or timing of those events). Pinching, grabbing, name-calling, and sexual innuendo of all kinds were the most common crimes, though it got much worse in other less common incidences.

    I think you’re right that people regardless of education are capable of being polite and respectful. Plenty of poor people on the Iron Range taught their children this, including my parents who never went to college. I think the poisonous aspect here was the all-male culture of the mines that allowed many bad habits (locker room talk among them) to build up. When women entered that workforce, not only did they threaten that culture, but their presence while the taconite industry contracted from 12,000 to 4,000 was an unspoken economic threat as well. It brought out the worst — bad behavior by some, tacit tolerance of bad behavior by most.

  3. Lorrie Janatopoulos says

    Aaron – you sound as if “boys will be boys” in this article. Having helped put on a dinner in support of the women in the class action lawsuit many years back, I know all too well how awful the boys’ behavior was. These women wanted work – work that paid a decent wage and instead they got guys ejaculating in their lockers along with all the rest of the “minor” crimes you speak of. And then they got PTSD from the ongoing harassment and the exposure of the court case. All they wanted in the beginning was a policy. I agree that the all-male culture exacerbated things. And still, in 2010, there were 3,434 male miners in comparison to 290 female miners and these are some of the best-paying jobs in the area. It is not only the times that need a’changing. I don’t know if men understand the culture of fear that can be created by such behavior but the stories that I have heard from women working in nontraditional fields are very similar even today and it is beyond time for good men like you, Aaron, to take the not so good ones to task. It is time to quit excusing terrible, inexcusable behavior.

    • Hi Lorrie – Wow, “boys will be boys” was certainly not my intent in writing this. In the interest of progress, I’m explaining what happened in a way that shows how people did monstrous things even though they had families and the capacity for love. That the behavior is intolerable is *presumed* in the entire premise of what I wrote here. I know of what you speak. I’ve never needed encouragement to call out such behavior. I do it in every class I teach and whenever I see it happen. Why, I’ll even say critical things about elected officials, time to time!

  4. Mike Worcester says

    After reading the book after it came out, it struck me that even though I was in college during the course of the trial, so much of it slipped by me. For that I am disappointed in myself.

    As to the broader issues involved, societal change — be it gender, religious, etc — takes more time than many of might like because those attitudes are ingrained so deeply in people across more than one generation. Yes we have made great progress, I’ve seen much in my relatively short adulthood alone. And yes, we have more room to grow and there will always be new challenges to face.

    It’s sad that people like Lois Jensen has to sacrifice so much to make the lives of other better. For that I wish there was more we could do than just offer our “thanks”, but that is how positive change arrives; through sacrifice and action. May there be more Lois Jensen’s as I grow older :-).

  5. Dan Anderson says

    Having worked in that industry while this was taking place, I have some insight on this subject.
    What some of these women went through was terrible. The book describes a lot of it. The movie was 98 percent fiction with a few facts. The Union Hall scene was pure fiction for sensationalism.
    The biggest part of this injustice was Evtac Management and Human Resources to deal with the problem, and to set an expectation for behavior in a mixed workplace. It’s too bad that it took a lawsuit to change that.

  6. I was working at Minntac during that time and we had women working in the pit for the 1st time. Most gave as good as they got from the guys who tried to harass them and the quiet gals got support from older guys who said “leave her alone she doesn’t want to hear your BS”. Being new to the mines and having women working along side you didn’t seem odd to me but many of the 30-35 yr old guys who had been there for 10-15 yrs didn’t like it. There was always off color language but that was just the way some of the guys talked on and off site. I was always impressed with the women that worked hard labor and they certainly didn’t need anyone giving them grief for working hard to support themselves.

  7. No Dan. The biggest part of this injustice was the union leadership. The union that took membership dues from these women yet refused to address their grievances in a responsible manner. Stan Daniels said that it was his job to protect his men. I was asked at that time by my union president if I was happy now that the union created the Women of Steel. He seemed astounded when I replied “no” and that I considered it to be a separate and unequal sandbox. If the union considers their membership as two separate entities with different levels of commitment to representation perhaps they should look at adjusting their membership fee schedule to reflect that reality. Having to pay someone to work against you is galling. I imagine the union hasn’t changed much after all these years. I wouldn’t count on any real progress until it does.

  8. Great comments on this article! I know my experience as a woman in the mines is going to be skewed because I’m management and in the Admin building so I tend to rely on views from the union workforce or women actually in the field. One comment that I found interesting was from a woman that had been at our mine since the 70’s who said that harassment there always stopped when concerns were raised to management. I always view that as the key failure at EvTac – no one who had the power to stop it, did and both management and the union leadership failed at that. I’m thankful for those women everyday and not just because I work in mining. Every single professional woman should be grateful for those women, regardless of their job. The amount of courage they had to stand up for themselves, and others who were not that brave, is simply awesome.

  9. Not sure at Evtac but at Minntac the unions were too busy arbitrating all sorts of grieviences that were ridiculous and stirring up crap to help with any harassment issues. Foremen and co workers help stop it more than any union meeting did. The same guys who had a garage full of tools that all had US steel stamped on them were fighting car and lunch box checks at the gate with union support and neither gave a hoot to how the women were treated.

  10. Thanks for writing this article and at least speaking about it. I grew up on the Range in the 80s and 90s. I read the book A Civil Action when it came out and the part that struck me most was when the author made the analogy if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out. But if you put a frog in water and then slowly turn on the heat it acclimates and ends up boiling to death. It means we don’t always see/notice/feels things as they are happening around us. Though, it is my old home, I was never comfortable on the Iron Range. How could I as a young teenage girl there see that women were treated as less than men? I vaguely remember when the lawsuit was happening and a sort of subdued tone of ‘those women are causing trouble.’ I remember, what I now know as, “blame the vicitm” mentality.
    I also remember an elementary school teacher who talked about equality of women and equality of people of color and how they are valued.I remember her saying that there was such a disrespect for women in our culture that American would elect a person of color before they would elect a woman to be president. In 2008, her statements came rushing back to me as I was about to see if her prediction was correct. We all know how that turned out. How could she see that in 80s and it turn out to be true?

    I appreciate that we get this opportunity to revist the conversation and to take a look at our history again. What is the story we told ourselves about what happened and is it holding up? It also makes me wonder, what is going on in society now that we are going to look back on and see more clearly in the decades ahead? It is by this type of learning our history that can work not to repeat it. Who now is trying to make a statement or defend themselves, but it’s falling on the deaf ears of people in power who can’t get past the way things have always been or the way things “just are?”

  11. David Gray says

    It is such a sterile and untenable canard that people who are wise enough to recognize that men and women are different don’t respect women.

  12. People can recognize that other people are different from themselves in sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity and culture while still disrespecting them. Happens all the time.

  13. Cuts both ways, folks who are not against gays but believe that marriage should be between 1 man and 1 women are called bigots by the same folks that state they accept everyone. Liberals call you a racist or unenlightened if you say that black folks are wrong for burning businesses in St. Louis and rioting if they don’t like a grand jury decision. So tiring to be called racist or bigot for a religious belief or simple what is right and what is wrong by the same people that preach tolerance.

  14. Everyone recognizes differences in people. We are not carbon copies which would make life very boring, imo, humans would stagnate from ennui. People don’t have to “accept” everyone or the differences that make them uncomfortable but that’s where the real conversation and introspection should begin unless one’s religious beliefs or sense of what is “simply” right or wrong won’t permit that. Fine. However, if you freely and often express opinions that you firmly believe but many find offensive or judgmental or bigoted or insulting, you shouldn’t be surprised that you get pushback. And you don’t get to whine that’s it’s unfair and intolerant of people to object to your comments and your feelings are hurt. There’s a choice of trying to understand others’ life experiences being totally different from your own or just agree to disagree.

  15. David Gray says

    >>However, if you freely and often express opinions that you firmly believe but many find offensive or judgmental or bigoted or insulting, you shouldn’t be surprised that you get pushback. And you don’t get to whine that’s it’s unfair and intolerant of people to object to your comments and your feelings are hurt.

    Remember that “kissa” when you get pushback.

  16. I love a good disagreement and when I deal with folks who see life thru a different prism, I often agree to disagree. My problem is when I hear the name calling that goes with “everyone needs to accept everyone” and if you don’t you are a bigot, racist or worse. To bring it full circle, the good folks in the mines stopped the mistreatment of women not the union, management or a lawsuit. There will always be a few bad apples but the vast majority of people know right from wrong.

  17. DG, Duh, anyone should expect pushback from somebody on any opinion on any little old thing. Only the rare person who never voices an opinion can avoid that.

    Sexism, racism and bigotry can range from incidents so egregious and blatant that most people can recognize to the more subtle forms that fly by a lot of people. The sexual harassment at Evtac was blatant but sexism is still very much alive. More than once, I have been in a group of people when a man has made a subtle putdown remark replying to a woman or women in the group that was condescending and dismissive. It wasn’t in-your-face obvious but every woman caught it. Later, when women brought this up, the other men, secure men not one bit sexist, were surprised. They didn’t hear it, missed it completely. They don’t have this behavior on their radar screen because they haven’t ever experienced it. Women deal with sexism and disrespect from men starting at a very young age, all through their lives and learn to recognize the indicators.

    The putdown guys may be deliberately sexist or it’s not their intention but they may be totally unaware that they sound sexist. As with sexism, all of us in our society are ingrained with racist messages and stereotypes whether we admit it to ourselves or not. I don’t know what it is like to be followed around on a regular basis in stores by a clerk suspicious I may be shoplifting. I don’t know what it is like to hear car door locks click as I walk by. I don’t know what it is like to encounter embarrassment or hostility when traveling, eating in a restaurant or renting a motel room. Why would I, I’m white. And I’ve lived most of my life in predominately white communities. I don’t have to give a moment’s thought about the color of my skin and interactions with people when I walk out my door. My white skin color inoculates me from experiencing racism. That’s unearned white privilege and it’s real as is unearned male privilege. People scoff or get angry but I don’t know how anyone can deny that simply being born male or white doesn’t come with automatic advantages that others don’t. Even more advantages if one is born a white male.

    I believe a lot of comments perceived as sexism or racism are unconscious, ingrained messages. People simply don’t realize that they sound sexist or racist. They are offended or outraged to be perceived that way but don’t take the logical step of learning why their comments sounded racist or sexist. Being the victim of sexism or racism, continually, in multiple ways, throughout your life, is a lot more upsetting and traumatic than once or twice being told you were maybe, accidentally, a bit sexist or racist.

  18. I’m doing a project for History Day, can you guys give me any websites that are fact?

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