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Girl Scouts attract civil rights pioneer

This year’s Kitsap County Girl Scout Leadership Luncheon’s featured speaker successfully argued a landmark discrimination case that triumphed over institutional sexual harassment and became the basis of an Academy Award-nominated movie.

Jean Boler, now an attorney for the city of Seattle, spent 10 years advocating the rights of female miners in Minnesota, a case that provided the blueprint for 2005’s “North Country.”

“The whole mission of Girl Scouts is to empower girls,” said Totem Council spokeswoman Tina Johnson. “Jean is a role model in the protection of women’s rights, in her ability to give them a voice. We try to let girls know they can make a difference.” 

Boler will spend a portion of her address discussing the case. She hopes to persuade attendees to speak out against injustice.

“Everyone has circumstances in their lives where they have a choice to do something to address something that is cruel or inhuman,” she said. “They can walk away, or they can choose to fight. The message of the movie is that it’s worthwhile to do this, where a few people are willing to stand up and care enough to go through some discomfort. This is something that makes the world better. I’ve seen ordinary women become heroes, just because they decided not to tolerate an unjust situation.

“The Girl Scouts,” Boler said, “is one organization where you learn this, how you can be bound together by values.”

Change can take a while. The discrimination allegations documented in the movie began in 1975, with the first charges filed in 1984. Boler, then an attorney for a small Minnesota law firm, took on the case in 1989, and later acted as an advocate until its 1999 resolution.

The case was brought by a small number of women who worked as miners and were discriminated against by their male co-workers. While many of them were single mothers and heads of households, they were made to feel they did not belong in the “man’s world” of working in a mine.

They were subjected to hazing and gossip, with the notion that any female miner had questionable morals.

“When I first met these women, they told me I wouldn’t last five minutes out there in the mine,” Boler said. “I agreed with them.”

Boler explained that much of the movie was true to life, with the dialogue and action taken from court records. Her personal role, however, was not so adequately represented, since the courtroom drama was cut in favor of events leading up to the lawsuit.

As a result, she is not represented in the movie.

“I would have liked to be portrayed by Jodie Foster,” she said. ”But the character in the movie closest to me was played by Woody Harrelson.”

While sexism and discrimination existed prior to the court case, Boler said the case was able to translate the charges into a class-action suit for the first time.

Because Washington — and especially Kitsap County — have many women in public service positions, local girls have access to positive role models. Despite this, Boler believes gender will always be an issue in elections, especially in the case of a woman running for president.

“Things have improved a lot, but not as much as some people think,” Boler said. “There is always a tendency for people to be cruel and victimize those who are not like themselves. This is because they’re scared, or because they’re challenged. Women have made inroads, but there are always instances of where people are unjust.

“I want people to walk away from my presentation with the belief that it really is important to stand up and support other people,” she said. “They need to confront injustice, which isn’t always an easy thing to do. You may pay a large price, but it’s worth it, because you end up changing things for the better.”

Boler said injustice is easily recognized.

“Kids know when people are using power in the wrong way,” she said, “or if they’re bullies that are pushing the boundaries. And they can recognize that it’s wrong to take advantage of people who are weaker than you are.”

The luncheon takes place at noon on May 24 at the Kitsap Conference Center in Bremerton. Event sponsors include First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Port Angeles, Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, Concurrent Technologies Corp., H&R Block, Hama Hama Co., Kitsap Credit Union, Kitsap Mall, the Kitsap News Group, Lilliwaup Community Club, Olympia Federal Savings, Mitchell Lumber Co., Steve Johnson Construction, Town and Country Markets and Washington Timberland Management.  

For information, reservations or to host a table, contact Annette Booth (800) 767-6845 or annettehb@girlscoutstotem.org.

A donation of $100 is requested from each guest.

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