Book Preface


"If you had been a man, you would have had the job."
"Hell will freeze over before we hire a woman principal at the Cook High School."

Those statements and the hiring of a less qualified man were the responses to my 1986 application for that position in the small town of Cook, Minnesota (population 650).
Now what do you do? Fight or forfeit?
I fought back and my book Plaintiff Blues is my story.
It spans seventeen years of EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) charges, civil litigation, and retaliation, including nine years as a plaintiff in two federal lawsuits. It is a story of breaking into a man's job in a man's world. The job is public school administration. The world is northeast Minnesota's Iron Range, where a mining economy and Old World provincialism have produced a distinctly macho worldview.
This is the same Iron Range described in the book, Class Action (Doubleday 2002) and the Warner Brothers film, North Country, based on that book. My story is the white-collar version of that nonfiction account of the sexual harassment women experienced after they were first hired in 1975 to work in the Iron Range mines. I experienced sexual discrimination, not sexual harassment. However, retaliation was common to both stories and is too often the response whenever someone asserts their employment rights.
In the 34 years I served in public education—16 as a teacher, 16 as a high school principal, and two as a district superintendent—no one ever questioned my competence or my superior credentials. Regardless, I lost six administrative positions to men later determined--—by EEOC decision, Federal Court verdict, public exposure, or School Board action—to be less qualified or incompetent. Every one of those hiring decisions followed closed meetings or procedures that violated due process.
My experiences were unique in many ways. My challenges took place in small towns in rural northeast Minnesota, where everyone knows everyone. There were none of the protections of urban anonymity. I challenged the discrimination I experienced from both outside my employment institution and from within. Those two experiences differed significantly and the comparison provides unique insight into the plaintiff experience. In the end, it was challenging from within that left me so vulnerable to retaliation.
Retaliation is devastating for the individual and has a chilling effect on co-workers. Everyone runs for cover, no one wants to speak up. It is destructive to the productivity of the institution involved and to the progress of civil rights in general.
If you have ever been treated unfairly on the job because of sex, race, age, disability, or religion, you will relate to these experiences and the lessons I learned over the 17 years of struggle against discrimination and retaliation. If you have represented or may represent a victim of job discrimination, you will gain insights into their experience as a plaintiff and the retaliation they risk.
The civil rights pendulum continually swings back and forth on the political spectrum. My story illustrates how the fine points of civil rights laws and precedents can vary with time and place. Civil rights will never be settled law. Civil rights will always be a work in progress. People will always have to take risks to assert their rights. No one else will do it for you. Only when individuals fight for their own rights, do the rights of all advance.
That's the bedrock of civil rights.
I didn't want this fight, but it was a fight I couldn't walk away from.
This is my story.
Along the way, I've included enough autobiographical information to provide context for the events described above and some of the common sense insights about education that I gained in thirty-four years as an educator.
All material quoted in this book is cited within the text itself. All material quoted is taken from original sources: newspapers, letters, e-mail, EEOC documents, sworn depositions, affidavits, and documents that were included in trial exhibits.
When first told about the rumor that I got the interview for the principal's position because I was "sleeping with the superintendent," I started taking notes and have kept taking them ever since. In high school, our class read and loved Tale of Two Cities. In 1963, our class adopted the story as our theme throughout our senior year and has used it for our class reunions ever since. Somewhere in that process I must have identified with Madame DeFarge, keeping track and knitting names into her scarf. Many of these contemporaneous notes became part of the official court records and they form the basis for much of the dialogue included in the story.
The illustrations on the front cover were taken from artwork given to me on November 26, 1990, by Al Wilander, the official courtroom artist in Judge Alsop's Federal Court in Duluth, Minnesota.
If you have similar experiences to share, comments, or questions about the material or topics in this book, check out the website at or e-mail me at

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