On December 16, 1977, eight women bank workers at Citizens National Bank in Willmar, Minnesota went on strike, charging sex discrimination they faced on the job. The Willmar 8 would not transform the banking industry or the small town of Willmar. But they would serve as inspiration for women around the nation seeking to end the sexual harassment and gender discrimination in hiring and promotion they faced everyday.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 legislated away unequal pay for the same work and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased federal commitment to gender equality on the job. But enforcement was highly sporadic in a misogynist society. Women made less than men because men thought women were not equal. Eight female workers at the Citizens National Bank in Willmar became outraged that they made $300 less a month than the men doing the same work. That was a huge pay gap, especially given 1977 wages. The starting salary for men was the same salary a woman working at the bank for ten years received.
In April 1977, the bank ordered a group of women to train a young male to become their boss. He already made more than they did. They had enough. They went to see the bank president. He told them that “We’re not all equal, you know” and that men needed more money than women because men paid for dates. The women were furious. Their names were Doris Boshart, Irene Wallin, Sylvia Erickson Koll, Jane Harguth Groothuis, Sandi Treml, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, and Glennis Ter Wisscha.They filed a gender discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Act. They formed their own small union that May, affiliating with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 Local 404, based out of St. Peter, Minnesota. In June, the EEOC ruled that the company had engaged in gender discrimination. But the company didn’t care. Ordered to negotiate, the bank stalled and did not take any of it seriously. Said Ter Wisscha, the negotiations were “an absolute effort in futility.”
So, on a cold December day, the women decided they had enough. How cold was it that day? Oh, the wind chill was -70. The 1970s was a period of labor militancy. Even though they did not have a union, they decided to go on strike. And they were highly committed. They picketed for nearly a year in front of the bank. Pretty amazing given they were such a small number. That also meant picketing in the middle of a Minnesota winter, which is nothing to sneeze at, largely because the sneeze will freeze in the air. They chose to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over their grievances.
Willmar was hardly a center of union activity. The AFSCME local in St. Peter was 100 miles away from Willmar. It’s just a small farm town and county seat in the prairies between Minneapolis and the South Dakota line. Even in 1977, it had less than 15,000 people. The strike caused a lot of tension in the community. Almost no one locally supported it. This was a strongly Republican town and this was the kind of thing that outsiders did. In fact, when the local head of the Republican Party, who was also a lawyer, took the case, he lost his position with the party. The women really suffered. Many of them were ostracized from the community. Businesses would refuse to serve them. Their children’s friends couldn’t play with them anymore. It was bad.
But this does not mean that the Willmar 8 did not get support. They did. A lot. It just came from unions and women’s groups in the Twin Cities and around the nation. The National Organization for Women sent supporters to join them on the picket line. The Willmar 8 did not generally consider themselves feminists. Those were crazy bra-burning radicals. But NOW educated the workers themselves, telling them that feminism was about giving women power, including at the job. They were ready to hear this message. Their newfound embrace of feminism no doubt did not help them in the Willmar community. Unions also came out to help. One day in February 1978, a big group of United Auto Workers members showed up in solidarity. The UAW then showed up many times. They were on the Phil Donahue Show and the Today Show, as well as many other television appearances. This was a story with legs.
However, this was not a strike built to last. The AFSCME local did not have a big strike fund and the workers eventually did need to work. Of course the bank had already replaced them. In the summer they dropped the lawsuit for gender discrimination in exchange for a small amount of money. By September, they asked to come back to work. Only one was immediately brought back, demoted from head bookkeeper to bank teller. Five eventually did end up back at the bank. It was not a victory for the workers at all. But the impact of the strike nationally was real.
The National Labor Relations Board did not really rule in the workers favor when it finally issued its ruling in 1979. It did say that the women had faced real gender discrimination. But it also said that the strike was one that was economic in nature and that the women would not receiver their jobs back or any back pay.
In the aftermath, the banking industry and other professional workplaces with a large number of women did begin to make some changes in workplace culture to reduce sexual harassment and provide women with something closer to fairer pay and chances for promotion. But we also know how limited those gains are. The story also continued to receive national attention, largely through the attention of Lee Grant. You may remember Grant, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 1951’s Detective Story. But then she was blacklisted for her leftist ties. She disappeared for awhile, showed back up in Peyton’s Place, had a big comeback in the late 60s, and then started directing documentaries. In 1981, she directed a documentary on the Willmar 8 by that title. That started her on a long run of well-received documentary on issues around gender and sexual discrimination, including an early transgender film titled What Sex Am I? Grant also directed a feature film in 1984 based on the Willmar 8 titled A Matter of Sex.
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