BY EMMA GEARY – MARCH 17, 2022
The fight for equal pay is a long-standing battle for women within the US and across the world. As we know all too well, the issue is present in Minnesota as we publish this post with teachers (which is historically a female-dominated role) striking for better wages and working conditions in the Minneapolis Public School District.
While there have been slow improvements, the Pew Research Center reports that women still make only 82% of what men make, and, “it would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020.”
Frustrating? Absolutely. Not to mention the unseen labor women often take on at home and run a household. As the needle moves forward though, we need to take time to thank the women of our past that simply didn’t take no for an answer. We’d like to introduce you to the Willmar 8, a group of women in Willmar, MN that transformed the fight for equal pay in 1977.
Though the Equal Pay Act of 1963 had been enacted, eight female employees of Willmar’s Citizen National Bank recognized inequities in their workplace and decided to take action. The women, Doris Boshart, Sylvia Erickson Koll, Jane Harguth Groothuis, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Sandi Treml, and Irene Wallin, grew tired of making nearly 300 dollars per week less than their male counterparts and working overtime without pay. Doris Boshart, the bank’s only female officer, earned $4,000 less than her male counterparts, whom she supervised.
The issue came to a boiling point in April 1977, when the women were told to train a young male employee who had been hired at a better wage and would eventually become their supervisor. As MinnPost reports, the women went to see Bank President Leo Pirsch and demanded an end to the discrimination.
Pirsch told the women, “We’re not all equal, you know. Men need more money because they have to pay for dates.”
After a complaint was filed with the EEOC and largely ignored, the women took the issue into their own hands and began a strike on December 16, 1977. Anyone who has spent a winter in Minnesota knows the brutal conditions that December can bring, and the Willmar 8 braved below-zero weather for days, which at one point even reached a -70 degree windchill.
With support from the National Women’s Organization and coverage on national media outlets like the Today Show, the strike continued for nearly two years. Eventually, though, strike funds dwindled and the women had no choice but to return to work without a contract, left to choose from only from openings as they became available. Doris Boshart was the only one immediately called back to work, and she was demoted from head bookkeeper to teller.
On the surface, this strike may look like a failure. Most of the women either lost their jobs or were demoted. Men within the bank bristled at the idea of being told what to do by women. However, The Willmar 8 are still credited as creating a pivotal conversation around equal pay, especially in small, rural communities. For many in the community, they realized that feminism isn’t someone else’s fight. It wasn’t always bra-burning radicalists villanized on the nightly news that were fighting for change, but the smart, driven, hardworking women that they knew and loved.
The Willmar 8 were pivotal in the fight for equal pay in Minnesota, and in the Women’s Movement nationwide. While all but one of these women lost their jobs over the strike, it is still credited as a turning point in the fight for equal pay. Teren Novotony remembers, “…her mother-in-law noticing how women were treated with increased respect at the bank where she worked” (MinnPost).
Even still, Doris Boshart receives letters from women across the country thanking her for her role in the fight for women’s rights. Ter Wisscha noted, “That’s what fuels my belief that we’re not done winning yet. People are still asking the questions. People still want to try to understand.”
“That’s what fuels my belief that we’re not done winning yet. People are still asking the questions. People still want to try to understand.” -Ter Wisscha, member of The Willmar 8
To learn more about The Willmar 8 and see the longest bank strike in history brought to life, you can watch the documentary on their work on Amazon Prime Video.
Emma is a writer living in Minneapolis. When she’s not checking out a new brewery with friends or blasting Taylor Swift in her car, you can find her dreaming up ideas as the Brand + Editorial Manager at LAB.