The three women in the stories below challenged discrimination they faced because they were women. They wanted justice for themselves, but they also wanted something greater, so they turned to the legal advocates who founded Gender Justice to help them do their part to eliminate the system of beliefs and behaviors that lead to gender injustice.
At Gender Justice, we see these women as heroes. We are honored to be able to work together with individuals like them, and with unions and community groups, as well as other regional, national, and global equal-rights organizations, to help create gender justice for all.
Please read their stories:
For 27 years, Charlotte Mitchell worked for American Crystal Sugar, a unionized company that processes beets into sugar at five factories in Minnesota and North Dakota. She worked her way up in progressively more senior positions, from “Miscellaneous Laborer” to “Anamet Operator.” Charlotte had a record of good performance in all her positions. After many years working as an Anamet Operator, she was promoted to a position with greater responsibility and higher pay: “Pulp-dryer Fireman.” It was labeled as temporary position, but Charlotte became the first woman fireman at American Crystal Sugar. As a fireman, Charlotte operated the pulp dryer – a gas-fired device for drying out leftover beet pulp to be sold as an ingredient for livestock feed.
Several years into Charlotte’s service in the “temporary” fireman job, the position opened for a permanent promotion. Given that she was currently performing the job, Charlotte should have had a good shot at getting the permanent promotion. Before Charlotte could even apply, however, she was suddenly demoted out of the job. The stated reason? Her supervisor said she had permitted the dryer to become plugged with wet pulp on three consecutive shifts. During those three shifts, the usual foreman, Charlotte’s husband, was absent, and an inexperienced (male) foreman had filled in for him.
After learning of the plugging incidents, the shift supervisor, Mike Ackerman, decided to demote Charlotte back to Anamet Operator. He demoted her without ever asking Charlotte what had happened. He never even considered whether the inexperienced male foreman might have caused the incidents. Instead, he speculated that “Miss Mitchell was [usually] being coached and helped excessively by her husband. . .and at that time [of the plugging incidents] her husband was not around.” Rather than investigating what happened, he assumed that Charlotte was incompetent and that her husband had been covering for her for years. He replaced her with a male worker.
Mike then kept the male coworker in the job despite a string of serious incidents in which he shut off burners incorrectly, read newspapers and used his cell phone while on duty, failed to monitor pulp levels in the dryer, and falsely blamed another employee for his own errors. Mike noted that he wanted to give this new fireman “as much time as he need[ed]” to get the job right, since the next person in line for the job was another women, and he “hated [her] guts.” The company gave the male worker who replaced Charlotte the permanent position.
Charlotte complained to her union about her demotion, but the union did not file a grievance. Shortly after Mike demoted Charlotte back to Anamet Operator, he demoted her again, this time all the way back to the Miscellaneous Laborer position she had held 27 years before. This time, he blamed Charlotte for a pump that had been broken on a previous shift. The Anamet Operator on that previous shift, a male worker with a poor performance record, was merely reprimanded.
Humiliated and angry, Charlotte sued for sex discrimination. During litigation, a laborer at American Crystal Sugar, Ben Wharram, came forward to provide key evidence. He testified to what Mike Ackerman had said to him a short time before he first demoted Charlotte: “It makes me nervous knowing a woman is controlling the dryer fires. It’s not a woman’s job. A woman belongs at home, not in a factory.”
*Warning: This story describes a sexual assault.
Leticia worked long hours for low pay as a housekeeper at the Ridgedale Mall, in a suburb of Minneapolis. Her employer was not the mall itself, but rather a large national corporation that provides housekeeping services at facilities like malls and airports, across the country. Leticia, however, had no contact with corporate headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, where the company’s Human Resources staff works. The only contact point she had was with the manager of the Ridgedale Mall operation, Marco.
According to Leticia: One day, Marco called her into his windowless basement office and closed and locked the door. He asked her to remove her uniform so that he could see her underwear. When she refused, he forcibly removed her clothes and raped her. He told her, “Don’t say anything to anyone,” and – shocked, terrified, and ashamed – she did not. Then he raped her on another occasion, and another, and another, each time threatening her that bad things would happen if she told anyone what he had done.
Marco’s threats were powerful because Leticia was an undocumented immigrant, and she believed Marco knew her status, and that he also knew about the undocumented status of many of the other housekeepers who worked for him at the Ridgedale Mall. If he reported Leticia to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she would likely be separated from her husband and two young sons and deported to Mexico. Eventually, Leticia could bear the situation no longer. In her words (translated from Spanish):
“The state of my soul began to change. My family became aware that something was happening to me but I didn’t say anything out of fear and embarrassment. I began to talk to myself, to remember with anger what had happened to me.”
Leticia did not know any way to inform her employer about the alleged rapes other than to report them to her boss – the alleged rapist himself. Leticia confided in her husband what had happened to her and he supported her in quitting her job and seeking outside help. They sought help from Spanish-speaking counselors at a local nonprofit service agency called Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) and an interfaith workers’ rights advocacy organization.
These advocates recognized the seriousness of her situation and referred her to a legal clinic. The lawyers there brought in the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota to advise Leticia about a new type of visa, the “U Visa,” which had been specially created for noncitizen victims of crimes, to ensure that such crimes could be prosecuted. Eventually, Leticia reported the rapes to the police, applied for a U Visa, and began working with her lawyers to bring a civil case seeking to hold Marco and her former employer accountable for sexual harassment and assault.
The employer has denied Leticia’s allegations, arguing that Leticia could not be trusted, since, as an undocumented worker, she is, by definition, a liar. The employer has argued that Leticia fabricated the rape allegations just to obtain the U Visa.
Gretchen Cooper was excited last fall when she learned about the job opportunity: serving as a driver for a group of wealthy visitors from Saudi Arabia who were visiting Rochester in order to get medical care at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. A similar Saudi group had visited Rochester in 2008, and Gretchen had been hired to drive for them. She was pregnant at that time, and the only woman among fifteen or so drivers. In a short time, she earned enough money in wages and tips to support herself and her baby daughter for an entire year.
In October 2010, Gretchen applied to the agency for the new job and was hired. Two other women – Barbara Herold and Lisa Boutelle – were also hired, along with a large number of male drivers. They started late on a Friday night, picking up the Saudi group from the airport and bringing them to their hotel.
On Saturday morning, they continued their work alongside the male drivers, figuring out parking rules at the hotel and making sure their cars were clean and gassed-up. They were on-call, so each woman waited to be told that she was needed by her assigned visitors.
But none of the women was called up to drive that Saturday afternoon. Instead, they were called into the hiring agency’s office, one after the other. There each woman was given the same message: she was being fired. He was sorry to have to take this action, the agency representative explained, but the visiting Saudi Arabian group had insisted upon it because they did not want women drivers.
Gretchen, Barb, and Lisa were devastated. The loss of income was significant to each of them. But they were just as upset by the reason they had been fired. In the middle of Minnesota, in the year 2010, could they really be fired because they were women?
Note: While all stories related here arise from real situations, some names and details have been changed to protect those involved.