Today In Labor History: Lead Smelter Protects Lady Workers By Requiring They Be Sterilized

On April 14, 1975, the Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, Idaho, announced a new policy in response to worries about female workers suffering reproductive problems due to lead exposure: It would require sterilization of all women working in its smelter. This was a landmark and horrifying moment in the history of women working in dangerous labor, particularly in traditionally all-male industries like mining.

Bunker Hill was founded in the late 1890s and became one of the nation's largest producers of lead and zinc. Until 1943, women were not allowed to work in the lead smelter. That changed briefly because of World War II, but they were again banned in 1946. In the 1970s, Bunker Hill employed around 1,600 people. Of them, nearly 100 were women. Twenty-two worked in the lead smelter area. By the 1970s, Americans' concern over lead poisoning, both on the job and in the nation at large, had grown significantly. The nation was moving toward banning leaded gasoline and environmentalists and some labor unions fought for greater restrictions on the exposure of working people to all sorts of toxic materials, especially lead.

'Working Class' Means Women, Too

Bunker Hill was a union mine, its workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America. But the USWA was not any more comfortable with female members in dangerous jobs than the companies were. In 1973, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Labor, and Department of Justice filed suit against the nation's nine largest steel companies and the USWA, charging them with discriminatory hiring practices that extended through the mills. That the union was at fault too is depressing, but on target with a lot of organized labor in traditionally male physically challenging work at this time. The settlement agreed to give $31 million in back pay to 40,000 women and minorities in the mills and to set hiring goals of 25 percent of supervisory positions and 50 percent of craft jobs going to women or minorities. Neither the union nor the companies really wanted this to happen. But the EEOC settlement reopened the lead smelter to women.

Bunker Hill's response to the EEOC suit was to cloak itself in a fetal rights argument, simply banning most women from the job. The company stated publicly that it "is willing to be criticized for not employing some women — but not for causing birth effects." What it was not willing to do was to limit exposure of all workers to lead. Effectively, Bunker Hill decided to define women primarily as child bearers and operate accordingly. But as ACLU lawyer Joan Bertin stated, the real reason was that companies didn't want women working in these jobs because of beliefs they were less efficient; she argued, "The price of safety cannot be the loss of civil and constitutional rights."

Thus if women wanted to work in the lead smelter, they could. But the company wanted no responsibility for the poison the women would ingest. So they had to be sterilized. Twenty-nine women refused and were transferred to safer work that paid significantly less and reinforced the gender norms in the mill. At least three women did allow themselves to be sterilized in order to keep their jobs.

Not Exactly A Norma Rae Moment

The women at Bunker Hill turned to their union for help. The USWA refused to get involved, saying the fight would be too expensive. It claimed that fighting this would cause more problems for women throughout the steel industry. It also worried for the future of the mill as the industry was already declining in the United States.

The women then went to the Idaho Human Rights Commission. It developed a compromise allowing women to be paid the same rates as if they worked at the smelter. Both the company and women rejected this idea: The company because of the cost, the workers for the principle. The women then filed a suit with the EEOC in January 1976. EEOC endorsed the same compromise as the IHRC.

Too many unionists did not care much about this case, including USWA officials. On the other hand, Tony Mazzocchi, safety director for the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and the most important figure in the union environmentalism of the 1970s and early 1980s, stated bluntly, "Ultimately, it will be quite clear that women and men alike suffer from exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals. When that happens, the industry initiative may be to have men sterilized. We will then enter the age of the neutered worker."

Hooray For OSHA ... For Five Minutes

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration stepped into this debate. President Carter's OSHA head was Eula Bingham, and as an advocate for feminism and women's rights, Bingham was furious at Bunker Hill's sterilization policy. As she noted, no one suggested men should be banned from workplaces where toxic exposure might lead to their sterilization. It's also likely that OSHA wanted to use Bunker Hill as an example in order to get companies to comply with its stricter national lead standard. In 1980, OSHA filed suit, fining Bunker Hill $82,000 for 108 occupational safety and health violations, including $10,000 for the sterilization policy. But after Ronald Reagan took the presidency in 1981, OSHA dropped the case. Reagan's OSHA stopped even referring to it as a "sterilization policy," instead calling it an "exclusionary policy," a significant rhetorical move.

But even before Bingham became involved in fighting the broader problem of discrimination based upon defining women as child bearers, the Idaho women had accepted defeat. The EEOC offered the same compromise as the Idaho Human Rights Commission. The women accepted their higher wages, but future women would not have the opportunity for those high-paying jobs. Within weeks, companies including Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Firestone, General Motors, and AT&T all instituted similar programs that effectively excluded women from high-paying, dangerous work.

In the end, the women believed they had been victimized not only by their employer but by the USWA and the government. The union had done basically nothing for them. The EEOC did not want to get involved. Women in other dangerous trades would have to continue fighting for equal access to work, a fight that would continue well into the 1980s.

Why It Matters Today:

Too often, the public face of the working class in the United States is defined as a white male in a union jacket, possibly with a mustache, working in a Michigan or Ohio auto plant. While these men of course are part of the working class, women make up at least half of the working class in the nation. Too often, they are still not treated as equal in the country or even in the labor movement. While sexism in the labor movement has improved a lot since the 1970s, there is still a lot of sexism and misogyny in many unions, especially those engaged in physical and dangerous labor. This is unacceptable. We must demand safe labor for all workers and we must demand that women have every opportunity on the job that men have.

Further Reading:

Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).


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