The plant challenged Lois's basic assumptions about a workplace. With no sun and no air, it felt primitive, menacing. The workday would be regulated not by people but by huge, ferocious machines and literally tons of dirt. The size and might and violence of the place made Lois realize that she would have to toughen up. The job would demand more than physical strength, however. For although her coveralls, boots, hard hat, and protective glasses had effectively desexed her, everywhere the foremen took her, the miners stopped what they were doing, gathered together in small groups, and stared. She didn't know a man there, yet everyone seemed to know her.
In 1975, mining put food on the table for 12,300 families on the Mesabi Iron Range, and provided the foundation for the economy of all of northern Minnesota. Minnesotans call the thin, ore-rich seam that stretches 110 miles long and 1 to 4 miles wide from Grand Rapids in the west to Babbitt in the east "The Range." The region amounts to less than 2 percent of the landmass of Minnesota, yet it is the largest iron-ore deposit in the world. For the past century it has produced 30 percent of the world's and two thirds of America's iron ore. Blasted in furnaces into steel, the ore and taconite from the Mesabi's tiny strip of land has provided the raw material that built postindustrial America--its buildings and bridges; its railroads, cars, and military arsenal. Rangers, as they call themselves, pride themselves on working hard, drinking hard, and surviving hard times at the hands of the mine owners. They were used to fighting for themselves--strikes were their way to better wages and work safety. In 1975, the heavily unionized mines provided some of the highest-paying blue-collar jobs in America. Wages at Eveleth started at $5 an hour (the minimum wage was then $1.80 an hour), and included good health care and retirement benefits. But because this good life was threatened by layoffs or, worse, by permanent cut-backs, the miners lived with an engrained sense of job insecurity, hostile to any force that might displace them.
Up until the mid-seventies, the women on the Range who needed or wanted to work were store clerks, teachers, bank tellers, secretaries, and waitresses. Few of these jobs came with health care coverage or above-minimum-wage salaries. But in April of 1974, nine of the country's largest steel companies signed a "consent decree" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Labor Department. The settlement forced the steel companies to hand over a historic $30 million in back pay to minority and women employees who had been discriminated against in the past. It also required the industry's mills and mines to provide 20 percent of its new jobs to women and racial minorities. Just like that, affirmative action had come to the Iron Range, and it set the stage for Lois Jenson and a handful of women desperate for a decent wage to walk into a place that had been forced by the federal government to hire them.
There is a saying about the Range: "Where the men are men and half the women are, too." But from the start, Lois was not like the other women at Eveleth Mines, or, for that matter, like most women on the Range. Feminine and ladylike, standing only five-foot-two and weighing a mere 105 pounds, Lois took pride in her appearance. She manicured her nails, wore perfume, and was known for her trademark scarves, artfully tied and color-coordinated with her outfits. The fact that she wore outfits set her apart. "In some ways I'm different from people around here," she said. "I always like to dress up. Even if I went out to Mugga's, our local place to dance, I would wear blue jeans with a dressy sweater and high heels."
She was different in other ways, too. She wrote poetry in notebooks that she carried with her. She exuded a sense of propriety that men, particularly those she turned down when they asked her to dance at Mugga's, took for conceit. She was a unique combination: stubborn but prissy, moral but flirtatious. She had a sense of herself that even her high school classmates at Babbitt High School had perceived. The quote they picked for her yearbook picture in 1966 read, "Don't dare me, I might surprise you."
Excerpted from Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Copyright 2002 by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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