Nov 7, 2005
North Country is based on a 1984 case in which Lois Jenson sued her employer, a Minnesota iron mining company, Eveleth, for sexual harassment. The movie tells the story of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a young woman who flees her abusive husband with two children in tow. She arrives at her parents’ doorstep in Minnesota’s bleak Iron Range. At the encouragement of an old friend, Josey gets a job in the mines.
The federal government had forced the mines to hire women and racial minorities in a 1974 settlement. This set the stage for a handful of women, desperate for a decent wage, to walk into a hostile situation. Many of the men felt that the women were taking their jobs. Women don’t need good paying jobs; they need husbands to take care of them and in Josey’s case to beat them – or so the twisted logic goes. To add to the pressure of this situation, there had been layoffs and more layoffs were threatened. So the men felt squeezed.
The women miners are routinely groped, verbally abused, and physically threatened, culminating in Josey’s case, in a near-rape on a pile of taconite. The work environment was so hostile, most of the women were too afraid to do anything.
Furthermore, they feared losing their job if they spoke up. It paid three times better than most jobs they could get. Women, if they had jobs outside the home, worked mostly as store clerks, beauticians, bank tellers, secretaries or waitresses. And these jobs often did not offer health or retirement benefits. No way could single women with children pay the rent with those low-paying jobs let alone buy food, clothing or medicine for their children.
When Josey Aimes takes a stand against the mining company, she isn’t looking to become a leader or make a statement. She just wants what every parent wants, to make a decent life for herself and her family.
The hardest thing that happens to Josey is not the treatment she receives from a few men, but the moment she turns to her fellow female co-workers for help and they turn away. Josey knows she needs the backing of the other women, otherwise she is easy prey. With one lone plaintiff the defense can claim she is either crazy or a slut. In her case they try to prove the latter.
This is not a story where all the men lined up on one side, against all the women on the other. There are instances where both men and women behave appallingly and others where they show great compassion. The movie also shows some of the gray areas in sexual harassment.
The movie has a happy Hollywood-style ending. In real-life it took Lois Jenson 14 long years, three trials, one appeal and a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to get a settlement of 3.5 million dollars for herself and 14 other women from this company which not only tolerated sexual harassment but also benefitted from it. Despite this shortcoming, the movie is worth seeing because of the glimpse into the lives of some workers we rarely get in a Hollywood movie.