Remembering the man who helped women be miners

Lost in the holiday diversions this week was the death of Paul Sprenger, who died on Monday while vacationing in Curacao.

He began his legal career in Minneapolis, the New York Times obituary noted, and “won important victories — and large settlements — for women, minorities and older workers against some of the nation’s largest companies, including 3M, Cargill and Control Data Corporation.”

None bigger than the one he won against Eveleth Taconite, where a woman wanted to be a miner.

Aaron J. Brown, who writes at Minnesota Brown, today provides — as usual — the proper historical context.

All I can think about are the multitude of ways I am connected to the case, all of which explains why sexual harassment on the Iron Range was so painful and so difficult to uproot.

While I moved around the Range quite a bit as a kid, we mostly lived somewhere in view of the steam cloud at Eveleth Taconite. The place was literally the backdrop to my understanding of my homeland.

My grandfather from Keewatin carpooled with Lois Jensen when she lived in Pengilly and both worked at EvTac. They didn’t know each other well, but drove together for about two years during the bad years. He talks about how the guys were rough on her, but always thought she was brushing off the comments. When “Class Action” came out, he ran out to buy the book. Mostly, he said, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t mentioned in it (he wasn’t). He always thought he was nice to her, but was worried there was something he said wrong.

That’s another reason this was such a mess. Guys had no idea what was appropriate or not. Most of them had little education beyond high school. The cultural practice of men working and women staying home with large broods of children was still very strong entering the 1970s and ’80s. None of it made sense to them, or their wives. “Women are being harassed? Why are they even there?”

But what was done was truly awful, and the emotional scars on the women were much deeper than even the movie “North Country” could show. The wife of one of my co-workers was part of the class action suit. My co-worker said what affected her most wasn’t the individual incidents, but the way that time changed her. The constant threat of verbal or physical abuse, perhaps even assault, had a psychological effect on these women. They had to discard their feminine selves to defend their bodies and their ability to provide for their families. Not for a few years. For a few decades.

In the movie, North Country, Woody Harrelson’s lawyer character was based on Sprenger, who closed his Minneapolis law office in 2009.

That the world is a different place for women — a better place — is through the work of people like Sprenger, Brown notes.

He deserved a longer vacation.