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Behind "North County"

by Ruth Rosen
A discussion of the case of Lori Benson, who was the inspiration for the movie North County.

When Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas in October, l991, Americans received a crash course in sexual harassment. Before the late l970s, few people knew what to call such relentless predatory behavior. That’s just the way it was. If you needed a paycheck, you just had grit your teeth and take it. The idea that sexual harassment could be viewed as a violation of a woman’s civil rights—her ability to earn a living--seemed, well, unimaginable.

Today, most companies, corporations and educational institutions have strict policies against sexual harassment. We owe this dramatic change, in large part, to Lori Benson’s determination to put an end to some of the most shameful sexual harassment ever described in print.

The story beings in l975, when a local mining company in Minnesota’s famous Iron Range realized that, in order to comply with affirmative action, it needed to hire a few women workers. Lori Benson, a single mother on welfare, desperately wanted to become a self-sufficient worker. Eager to earn the higher wages paid members of the steelworkers’ union, she quickly applied for and got a job at the mine.

Benson was willing to put with all kinds of hardship. Neither the grueling hours nor the viscous soot from belching machines wore her down. But from her first day, she and the other first women workers experienced relentless harassment from male workers. The men didn’t just whistle, grope, fondle or yell obscenities. They didn’t just write graffiti all over the mines or hang up pornographic pictures. They also ejaculated on women’s sweaters, sabotaged their machines, hung nooses to scare them, and stalked them at work and at home.

As a member of the union, Benson felt she shouldn’t “rat” on her fellow “brothers.” When a manager stalked and assaulted her, however, she felt certain that the union would protect her and other women. But both the union and company refused to take her complaints seriously.

That’s when Benson resorted to the courts. After five years of complaints and petitions, Lori Benson and a handful of co-workers received word that their sexual harassment case had been certified as a class action suit. Though it would take another ten years before the local mining company agreed to settle the suit, their case eventually became the cornerstone of modern sexual harassment law. In the end, it took 25 years, three trials, community ostracism, and the loss of her physical and mental health before Benson prevailed.

Lori Benson didn’t enter the mining culture with a feminist consciousness. None of the these women miners, in fact, knew what to call the hostility and sexual assaults they encountered. But their lives overlapped with the women’s movement’s efforts to name the hidden injuries they daily suffered. In l979, law professor Catherine MacKinnon published her path-breaking study, Sexual Harassment of Working Women. In l980, the federal government agreed to create guidelines for sexual harassment. Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment constituted a violation of women’s civil rights. By the time Anita Hill’s name became a household word in l991, Lori Benson and her co-workers understood what they had suffered.

Despite the media’s predictable and stereotypical depiction of feminists as white middle-class activists, many women who changed recent history came from different class and ethnic backgrounds. Even when she won, Lori Benson didn’t fully realize what her gritty determination had achieved. At a party held to celebrate her victory, Jenson still didn’t see herself as a heroine who had taken on the mining industry and won. As Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler write in Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law, “Despair was what she knew and she had held steadfastly to it. For fifteen years, she had been buried by the fight, unable to see the great significance of what she, and the women who stood by her, had started., There in the mist of the party chatter, she let it sink in. Benson v. Eveleth Mines would always bear her name, but now it had a life of its own. And so did she.” (p. 382)

We are the fortunate heirs of her heroic struggle and her story, filled with pathos and bravery, deserves a wide and appreciative audience.

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