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Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law


Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law

"Sexual harassment" usually conjures up images of Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and a certain can of Coke. But long before Hill and her boss-cum-Supreme Court justice became a media soap opera, Lois Jenson had begun a fight of her own in northern Minnesota's frozen tundra. The surprisingly brisk page-turner CLASS ACTION: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law traces Jenson's 20+-year struggle for justice and the legal precedents the fight established.

Jenson became one of the first four women ever hired at Eveleth Mines in 1975. From the start these women faced an uphill battle. The male miners vocally opposed integration, and a handful of them acted out their frustration in a jaw-droppingly crude manner. Pornographic pictures, offensive graffiti, unwanted touching, and threats of rape were but a few of the trials the women endured. And, as the number of women miners grew, the harassment only worsened.

Many of the women were scared to report the abuse to the company for fear of losing their jobs; the union continually turned a deaf ear to their complaints. Jenson reached her breaking point in the early 1980s, when a fellow employee --- a superior who had her transferred under his watch --- began stalking her, and the company did not sufficiently address the problem. Nine years of frustration bubbled over. Jenson did the only thing she knew would get their attention: she filed suit against the company and, eventually, the union. The case languished at the state attorney general's for a few years before Jenson switched to a civil suit. Upon learning the breadth of the harassment at the mine, Jenson's attorneys decided to file the first-ever class action sexual harassment suit. Jenson's saga, as well as those of the many women who stood with and against her throughout the ordeal, took more than 10 years to resolve in court.

Co-authors Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler bring differing strengths in this 390-page tome, which reads like an extended newspaper article and is blessedly free of legalese. Bingham, the journalist, adopts a clear, non-stuffy style that lends itself to lawyer Leedy Gansler's insightful analyses. The authors do a thorough job of explaining legal terms for the layman. Readers reach a clear understanding of what a class action suit is and why this one broke such ground. Of course, there is always room for improvement. Many of the "bad guys" in this drama, the union officials, opposing lawyers and company owners, refused interview requests. Hearing their side would have given the story better balance. Some of the women who become participants in the class action seem to float in and out of the story without enough explanation (and some pop up without any introduction at all). But by no means is this reason to stop reading.

Sadly, CLASS ACTION also demonstrates one of the truths of nonfiction, as opposed to fiction. Once-spunky, energetic lead plaintiff Jenson spirals into depression and a near-invalid state due to the pressures of the lawsuit, another plaintiff dies before the settlement is reached, and another ping-pongs in and out of a mental hospital. It is erstwhile heroine Jenson whose saga is most arresting. While she does not always inspire sympathy, particularly when her obsession with the case leads to self-inflicted isolation, she always demands admiration. Not many women have the courage to stand by their convictions while paying so high a price. She repeats over and over that her driving goal was to establish a harassment policy at the mine so that the next generation of women had a recourse from abuse. That the harassment Jenson and her coworkers suffered seems so unfathomable today may mean she had the last laugh.

As important as Anita Hill was in the sexual harassment consciousness-raising department, Jenson was just as important in the courtroom. Not only did she and the other Eveleth women wrap a blue collar around this oft-perceived white-collar crime, they set a legal precedent on a confusing, contentious issue. While Jenson likely never will be as well-known as Hill, Bingham and Leedy Gansler do their best to explain why she should be. Judging by this well-written, well-researched book, it's hard not to agree.

Reviewed by Toni Fitzgerald ( on June 18, 2002

Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law
Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler

  • Publication Date: June 18, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385496125
  • ISBN-13: 9780385496124