Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed
Sexual Harassment Law , by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Doubleday, 390 pages, $27.50.
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 Jensen 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 … and demand justice.
Stephen Metcalf writes for Slate and reviews books regularly for The Observer.