Tom Boshart has a quirky memory of his late mom, Doris. It involves battery-operated socks. A snap on a little sock pocket would complete the circuit and a 9-volt battery would keep her feet toasty.
Those feet became two of the most famous in Minnesota labor history. To wit: Doris’ boots were on display at the History Center when the state turned 150 in 2008.
That’s because Doris Boshart was the anchor of the Willmar 8, a group of everyday female bank employees in small-town Minnesota in the late 1970s. Fed up with men earning nearly twice as much for similar work, they walked out on strike and right into feminist and labor lore.
For two bitterly cold winters, they picketed the downtown bank, drawing attention from across the nation and around the world and becoming a classic case study of sacrifice to instill change.
“Mom was a strong-willed woman,” Tom Boshart said. “And she loved to show me those battery-operated socks.”
Born on a farm near Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1930, LaDoris Jennings married Roy Boshart in the early 1950s. Roy’s feed-selling job transferred him in 1968 to Willmar, then a town of about 13,000 residents in south-central Minnesota.
As a teller and bookkeeper at Citizens National Bank, it took 10 years for Boshart to go from earning $400 to $700 a month — the same starting salary for the young men she trained and who often went on to become her boss.
“We talked about it amongst ourselves all the time,” Boshart said in a 2002 interview. “And it just kept growing and growing and we kept getting angrier and angrier.”
In April 1977, the women marched into the office of bank president Leo Pirsch, insisting that the unpaid overtime and unfair treatment of female employees had to stop.
“We’re not all equal, you know,” Pirsch told them, adding that men needed to earn more because, among other things, they must pay for dates.
Fuming, the women filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
And they formed a union — Willmar Bank Employees Association Local 1 — often described as Minnesota’s first bank workers’ union.
When negotiations bogged down between the union and the bank, the eight women went on strike Dec. 16, 1977. They donned snowmobile suits and mufflers, braved 70-below-zero windchills and went out to march in front of the bank — marching that continued for nearly two years, even after the strike ended.
They quickly became national symbols of the women’s movement — appearing on the “Today Show,” doing interviews with talk-show host Phil Donahue and becoming subjects of a documentary, “The Willmar 8” from actress and filmmaker Lee Grant. A 1984 NBC film, “A Matter of Sex,” starred Jean Stapleton of “All in the Family” fame.
Some of the women bristled at their sudden notoriety, insisting they weren’t the bra-burning radicals on one end of the emerging feminism front.
At 47, Boshart was older than the other seven: Sylvia Erickson Koll, Jane Harguth Groothuis, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Sandi Treml and Irene Wallin.
As she tromped through the snow and cold in her heated socks, Boshart watched the reaction of her small town split. Some were supportive, honking horns and waving as they went by.
In a 2002 documentary, “The Willmar 8 Revisited,” Boshart recalled one woman who “came to the picket line and brought us sandwiches on homemade bread, and that was quite uplifting.” She became emotional when recalling “how mean” others were.
“After all these years, you can still get teary over this … because you relive a lot of things that you would like to forget,” she said.
She knew Willmar families were debating the strike over their dinner tables, but residents stayed tight-lipped. Boshart said no one ever came out directly and asked what the strike was all about.
“I think they were ashamed that they let us stand out there for two years,” she said.
While other area banks did well, Citizens National watched the number of its deposits decline. Bank officials penalized a nearby service station when it let the women use its restroom.
In the end, the strike failed. The women never received a new contract. As strike funds dwindled, they dropped their discrimination suit in the summer of 1978 and accepted a small settlement. Then the National Labor Relations Board gave them a hollow victory in 1979, ruling that the bank had used unfair labor practices but that the women didn’t deserve back pay because the unfair practices hadn’t caused the strike.
By then, Pirsch had resigned and the bank was sold — the first in a string of turnovers. Managers said the women could be hired back, but only when there were vacancies among replacement workers.
Doris Boshart, demoted from head bookkeeper to teller, was the only one of the Willmar 8 to return for more than few months. She was still at the bank’s offshoot 25 years later. For her, it was a matter of principle.
“I have no regrets,” she said in 2002, three years before her death from cancer at 74. The first member of the Willmar 8 to die, she’s buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery alongside her husband.
In later years, Boshart was comforted by letters from across the globe thanking her for her bravery and courage. She read one in the 2002 film:
“Thank you for trudging through snow and putting up with the attitudes,” the writer said. “You and the Willmar 8 had an important role in the changing place for women.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.