The Willmar 8
Taking a stand when the stakes are high
Doris Boshart, Sylvia Erickson, Jane Harguth, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Sandi Treml, and Irene Wallin. You may not recognize their individual names, but collectively they stirred up controversy in their Minnesota town and across the country in the late 1970s. Known as the Willmar 8, they came to symbolize the uphill climb many American women faced when seeking pay commensurate with their experience and equal to that of their male peers.
The women had been hired at Citizens' National Bank in Willmar at $400 a month. Starting monthly salaries for men averaged $700. Women were expected to work overtime without pay. The bank's sole female officer earned $4,000 less per year than her male supervisees. The last straw, though, came when the women were directed to train a young man right out of college to become their boss. When they pointed this inequity out to bank president Leo Pirsch, his reply spoke volumes: "We're not all equal, you know." They filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. In June 1997, they formed Minnesota's first bank union, the Willmar Bank Employees' Association Local 1. The EEOC took up their cause, but negotiations with bank management broke down. Finally, on December 16, 1977, the women zipped up their snowmobile suits and stepped out into the seventy-degree-below-zero windchill with their picket signs to begin the nation's first bank strike.
They hoped a new contract could be negotiated within a few weeks. After two years, they still hadn't reached an agreement, but sympathizers nationwide had heard their voices loud and clear. Feminist concerns were making headlines everywhere, and the Willmar 8, a group of plainspoken wives, daughters, and mothers, struck a chord. Representatives from the National Organization for Women joined them on the line, as did members of the United Auto Workers. In 1980, actress Lee Grant filmed a documentary about them. "It was the first labor strike that really brought together issues of the labor movement and the women's movement," says Renee Vaughan, who teaches at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. "Before the Willmar 8, the labor movement didn't see gender discrimination as part of the platform. The eight of them really did create social change."
In September 1978, the EEOC negotiated a settlement and the women dropped the lawsuit and agreed to work without a contract. One by one, as their demands went unmet and the bank refused to rehire them, the women found other jobs. Doris Boshart was the only member of the Willmar 8 called back to work immediately; eventually, three others joined her, but only for a few months. Boshart was the only one who stuck it out, even though she was demoted from head bookkeeper to teller and was harassed by coworkers. The National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling in 1979 that did not support the women's position in regard to discrimination. Ter Wisscha, now living in St. Paul, still gets letters and phone calls from students. "That's what fuels my belief that we're not done winning yet," she says. "People are still asking the questions. People still want to try to understand."
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