By Kimberly Wilmot Voss
Tuesday, May 13, 2003
The 'Willmar 8' made a courageous contribution to the women's equal-pay movement when they conducted one of the first gender-discrimination strikes 25 years ago in Minnesota.
(WOMENSENEWS)--A tiny band of bank tellers who 25 years ago became known as the Willmar 8 continue to inspire women who are coping with unequal pay today.
It was December 1977 when Citizens' National Bank in the small Minnesota town of Willmar hired a young man as a loan officer--a position that hadn't been posted.
The bank manager expected the lower-paid female bank tellers to train the young man. It was the last straw for the eight women who had been enduring poor pay and no chance for promotion. They decided to strike. Gripping hand-painted signs, they wrapped themselves in snowmobile suits and facemasks to battle the 70-degree-below wind chill.
As they began to march in front of the bank in January 1978, over 25 years ago, they hoped that a new contract would bring them back inside within a few weeks. They wound up staying out of work for more than a year and never got that contract. They did, however, attract the attention of a country to the rights of working women.
Doris Boshart, Irene Wallin, Sylvia Erickson Koll, Jane Harguth Groothuis, Sandi Treml, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, were the Willmar 8.
It would be hard to argue that the Willmar 8 can be tied to great changes for women in the financial industry. A recent study conducted by the Financial Women International Foundation, Arlington, Va., (formerly the National Association of Bank Women), found that of the 100 largest, publicly held U.S. commercial banks, only 16 percent of executive management is female. The discrepancy is particularly striking, given that 75 percent of the employees in the overall industry are women.
Nevertheless, Renee Vaughan, executive director of the Minnesota Women and Work Oral History Collection, St. Paul, said she still feels the helpful effect of the women's stand 25 years later. "They sparked hope and a passion for justice for this Midwestern gal," she said in an online interview. "As corny as this sounds, I think about them every now and then when I am feeling unsure about myself, or if I think I am being treated unfairly. I think about their courage and determination."
Ter Wisscha, one of the Willmar 8, accepts the laurels. "It was a turning point, a revolution," she said in a phone interview. "It began as an employment issue and grew. Every day was unexpected. We didn't seek the publicity but we got it."
The women's strike caused stress for many in the Western Minnesota town of 14,000 people. Few outwardly showed support for the strike and the lawyer who took the women's case, John Mack, lost his position as county chair of the Republican Party.
Ter Wisscha said the topic was one that was rarely discussed in her extended family as an argument would soon ensue. She was only 19-years-old when the strike began, younger by at least a decade than most of the others. Ter Wisscha said it was their stories of past discrimination that provoked her to take a stand.
Soon others were listening, too.
"The Willmar 8 brought together issues of feminism and labor rights and unions," said Vaughan, of the Minnesota Women and Work Oral History Collection. "At first nobody wanted to claim the Willmar 8 as their own. The feminists claimed it was a union issue and the unionists claimed it was a feminist issue. The Willmar 8 were not self-described radicals or feminists. They were, as they described, 'just really, really mad.'"
The women who made up the Willmar 8 had been hired at $400 per month. The starting salary for men averaged $700 a month; the same amount that Boshart, one of the Willmar 8, was making after 10 years at the bank. In hopes of finding equity, they formed Minnesota's first bank union.
By February 1978, union support arrived from the Twin Cities. More than 250 employees from the United Auto Workers arrived to march with the women. Donations arrived from around the world and homemade muffins appeared regularly.
The women filed a gender-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. In June 1978, the commission ruled that there was reasonable cause to believe that there had been gender discrimination at the bank. The bank's board of directors agreed to negotiate but the discussions went nowhere. By the end of the summer the tide was turning against the Willmar 8.
After months on the picket line, the women dropped their discrimination lawsuit against the bank in exchange for a small financial settlement brokered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By September 1978, the strike fund was gone. The women dropped their demands and offered to work without a contract. In March 1979, the strike ended altogether when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the strike was economic and that labor practices had not caused the strike. The decision was a huge loss for the women, resulting in no back pay and no guarantee that they would get their jobs back.
Boshart was the only one called back to work but was demoted. She stuck it out and still works at the bank--which is now Heritage Bank.
Although the Willmar 8 never got what they originally sought, they didn't feel defeated.
"Historically, I think it was a seed for change," said Ter Wisscha. "It really opened people's eyes."
While the women moved on in their careers, their impact was felt nationwide. After the first reports of their stand, the women appeared on numerous news and talk shows. A made-for-television-movie, "A Matter of Sex," was made about them in which Jean Stapleton played Wallin. The eight also motivated other women to examine their working conditions.
"These women inspired women workers more generally to think that pre-existing hierarchies did not have to be perpetuated and that it was possible for women workers to participate in the negotiation of wages, promotion rules, benefits," said Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "They also inspired women activists to consider the labor movement as a vehicle and working women as possible agents of change."
Kimberly Wilmot Voss has been a journalist for the past decade. She is a journalism professor at the University of Southern Illinois Edwardsville.
Financial Women International:
Workday Minnesota--Working Life: History
"Twenty-five years later, Willmar 8 are heroes to a new generation":
Minnesota Women and Work Oral History Collection--
The Willmar 8: