Book Review: Class Action

Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, Anchor; Reprint edition (October 14, 2003)

I picked up a copy of ‘Class Action’ hoping that it might reveal some secrets to me about how people work together to get the law changed, and find justice for what was happening to them.

It’s the true story of a group of women who were faced with appalling sexism and conditions in a Minnesota iron mine, lead by gutsy single mother Lois Jenson, They found someone to represent them, and eventually changed sexual harassment laws in the USA forever

I have recently come across a quote, unrelated to ‘Class Action’, but true of the legal system, and wholly pertinent to the tale, by Helena Kennedy, QC:

“In the social contract that exists in democratic societies you go to the law when you have been wronged. But we know the law doesn’t deliver for us. We have seen it and we have tried it and it doesn’t deliver. And therefore we are using a different mechanism. We are throwing a brick through a window. It is essentially civil disobedience, like the suffragettes deciding whether to put a match into a postbox. But as happens with civil disobedience, you can get punished. If you do go public, we have to warn people that they are at risk of punishment being used by powerful men to silence them.”

This was true in the case of the brave women who stood up to be counted in this case. They paid heavily with their relationships, with increased harassment, with social isolation and vilification, and, in Lois’ case, with her mental health, PTSD included, something I’ve noted is common amongst women who have reported activity to be repeatedly let down by the system.

What did I learn about class actions? I’m not even sure if they’re a ‘thing’ in the UK. They are incredibly expensive and reliant on good legal folk to take a stand and underpin the incredible amount of work that it takes to bring a case to court. And they’re unlikely to apply to grooming anyway as the UK law stands.

It’s reinforced for me the true need to stand up to sexual harassment and the need to educate companies’ personnel about where the lines fall. And how difficult it is to be heard. It highlights that the attitudes from the top really matter: this case would never have happened if senior, powerful management had listened to the advice they were given and gained a conscience, rather than believing that they were above it all. (Are the days of the psychopath leader now numbered? Here’s hoping!)

It also added to my growing sense that the law isn’t equal, or fair, and that the adversarial systems that we use are toxic to justice – that witnesses are judged by what they are rather than what they say. Bright, breezy, sharp as a button Lois is a ‘good’ witness; the broken, medicated, overweight Lois that she became is almost a liability. Yet it’s broken Lois who needed justice the most.

This is a brilliant, compelling book, with very human stories running through it like a stick of rock. I recommend it to you. The lessons in it ring true.

Chances of taking a class action on grooming or ‘Rape by Deception’? Virtually zero. I’m laughing at myself for having a head full of dreams, for believing that change could be that easy. It took so much for us to even get a vote!

I’ll not try to hide that I’ve already, at times, been broken by being groomed, and the subsequent actions of lawyers, police, counsellors and the ‘move on’ brigade. Would I change a thing? Listening to the story of Lois, seeing what they achieved, yes – I’d have been more strident, more sure of my own convictions and values.

Of course I wish I had never been sucked into this world. But I’ve now got chapter and verse on a whole range of women’s issues. I have been proud to help people in some small way, making myself, in the process, feel better about my mistake in trusting a seasoned groomer. ‘Class Action’ isn’t just about Lois. It’s human, messy, harsh, joyous. But it’s Lois who’s inspirational, and for her, and all the women like her, who’ve risked it all to create change, we need to heed Helena’s words. Change will not be easy. But oh, how satisfying!

Change needs a helping hand, and I’ve met enough “bloody awkward, bloody stubborn women”, who wear that badge with pride. I, for one, would be ashamed if I failed to help them in any small change that I can. One by one, we really CAN make a difference.

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