"The emotional harm, brought about by this record of human indecency, sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit of...
“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. The humiliation and degradation suffered by these women is irreparable.”
— Judge Donald P. Lay, U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, Dec. 5, 1997It’s been seven years since attorney Jean Boler defended a group of women in their long, brutal fight against sexual harassment at a Northern Minnesota mine.
Seven years since the landmark case changed corporate America forever.
And six years since Boler, drained and disillusioned by the judicial process, quit a Minnesota law firm and moved to Seattle with her professor husband, John Dienhart, and daughter, Rosie. For a year and a half, Boler contemplated writing fiction.
But Boler is again a lawyer, in the employment-law division for the city of Seattle. And now the miners’ story, and their subsequent legal battle, has been turned into the gritty film “North Country.” Boler’s work colleagues are wondering whether that Woody Harrelson character is supposed to be her.
He’s not, really. The movie’s protagonists are composites of the real-life characters whose story is chronicled in the 2002 nonfiction book “Class Action” by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler.
Attorney Paul Sprenger asked Boler, who had just joined the Twin Cities firm, to work with him on the miners’ suit. She spent 5,636 hours on the case, according to the book. More hours than any other attorney at the firm, Sprenger says.
The suit against Eveleth Taconite Co. was filed in the Minneapolis federal court in 1988. It alleged the women had been subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination and that their co-workers and supervisors “created and condoned” the environment.
Up until then, the theory that a sexually hostile work environment could affect a group of workers hadn’t been proved in court. The case made history as the first sexual-harassment case to be certified as a class action.
3 trials, 10 years
The long legal wrangling — the case took three trials over 10 years before ending with a $3.5 million settlement spread among 15 women — is given short shrift in the film, which Boler saw with her family on a recent Friday night.
But all those long shots of Northern Minnesota’s snowy starkness — “Siberia,” Boler says — rang true. She’d routinely make the four-hour drive from the Twin Cities to the Mesabi Iron Range where the mine was located.
The film works best, Boler says, in depicting the hostility the women faced from the men, upset at losing what had been the status quo.
Affirmative action had just opened the Eveleth mine to women in 1974, the year before Lois Jenson (the character played by Charlize Theron) went to work at the mine.
What followed was a nightmare for the women: vitriolic name calling, sexually explicit graffiti, replicas of male genitalia, graphic pictures of naked women scrawled with references to her anatomy. Men simulated sex acts with them. Excrement, and worse things, were found in their dressing area and in their lockers. One man groped Jenson in the crotch. Another twisted a woman’s nose. A third entered the women’s houses in the middle of the night. (In a New Jersey newspaper interview, Michael Seitzman said that while the film’s characters are composites, all of the harassment shown on screen was based on real incidents.)
The women also were criticized by some female co-workers who, fearing for their safety and their jobs, lashed out.
In the end, Patricia Kosmach, who has family ties in Issaquah, as well as Jenson and the other women who brought the suit showed tremendous courage, Boler says. Heroes, she calls them.
“I was just a lawyer who helped,” she says. “She [Jenson] wanted to make things right. She was on this crusade and she had this single-mindedness and I think that people who really make change are like that.”
Challenges to face
Boler, 52, was raised in Minneapolis and attended college and law school at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1982. Her upbringing and her chosen career — she figured she could make a difference by becoming a lawyer — were a world apart from the lives of her female clients.
During one deposition, recounted in the book, one of the women workers tells Boler that Jenson, the lead plaintiff, was too thin-skinned to work in the mine:
“She is more ladylike, or something, than I am. It would be like sticking you out there. You wouldn’t make it either.”
Boler thought to herself, “She’s right. I wouldn’t last five minutes out there.”
But Boler would face her own challenges in the court case, in particular the damages trial in 1994. Having proved the company maintained a sexually hostile workplace, the lawyers now had to prove how much the women had been damaged. That would then help decide how much money they could receive.
But in trying to discredit the women’s claims, the mining company aggressively dug into the women’s pasts: Medical records dating back to birth. Psychological histories. All sorts of questions about their sex lives.
The court’s special master, a retired federal magistrate appointed to oversee the suit, allowed all of it.
“It was much more invasive that we had ever expected it to be,” Boler recalls. “When you’re younger, you’re idealistic and you think a lawsuit can be an answer,” she continues, calling that court phase “a betrayal.”
“But there’s a cost.”
Ruling by special master
In March 1996, the special master ruled the sexual harassment had only temporarily embarrassed or angered the women — and didn’t cause them emotional or mental anguish. He awarded them an average of $10,000 each. And in his 416-page ruling he publicly disclosed that Jenson had said her 28-year-old son had been conceived during a rape. But the special master also doubted whether Jenson had been raped.
The court upheld the report.
But when the case was won on appeal more than a year later, the court called the women’s experiences at the mine “a record of human indecency,” and said that no amount of money could ever make them whole again.
A settlement was reached on the eve of a new trial.
As the first class-action case, “it put employers on notice that sexual harassment was going to be taken very seriously,” says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Boler, increasingly a celebrity of sorts among friends and family, was interviewed last week. “Other people will tell me, ‘Oh, that’s such a great thing you did.’ But I always feel I was just carried along by events. Once I got involved, I just had to stay involved.”
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org