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Denver woman won right for female engineers to work on Eisenhower Tunnel project

Janet Bonnema was hired to work on the Eisenhower Tunnel project in the 1970s but was put on desk duty because she was a woman. She fought back and became a trailblazer in the field.

DENVER — A small typo helped paved the way for Janet Bonnema to become a trailblazer in Colorado and in the engineering field.

She was mistaken for a man and was hired by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) in the 1970s to work on the Straight Creek Tunnel, which is currently known as the Eisenhower Tunnel.

"Her name was somehow spelled as Jamet, j-a-m-e-t, and it was Mr. Jamet Bonnema," said Lisa Schoch, the senior historian at CDOT.  

"They thought she was a male," said Beth Barela, with the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. "That's absolutely why she got the job."

When CDOT realized the mistake, Bonnema was banned from working the tunnels alongside her male counterparts.

Credit: KUSA

"She was denied access and not allowed to do the job she was hired to do. And she was assigned desk duty," Schoch said. "There's a myth that women in tunnels is bad luck. If women enter tunnels, there will be cave-ins, there will be all these catastrophic events."

Bonnema, who was an engineer, decided to take legal action. She filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.  

"I was thinking you've got to be kidding. You can't be serious. This can't happen," said Sandy Rothenberg, who represented Bonnema. "I mean it was almost hilarious. We knew we were going to win it."

Eventually, the two sides settled out of court. Bonnema received about $6,800 as part of the settlement, but even more importantly, she was able to work on the project. On November 9, 1972, she went to work on the tunnel.

"It was so dark in there you couldn't tell anywhere that she was a woman," said Beth Barela, with the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. "They walked her in and through it was a big deal. Sixty-seven tunnel workers walked out. And said they were going to quit."

The next day though, all but one of them returned to the job. 

After the Eisenhower Tunnel’s completion in 1973, Bonnema earned her master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Colorado and traveled the world to work on projects. She died in 2008 after a long fight with cancer and was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame in 2012.

The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame is calling on you to nominate its next group of extraordinary women to be inducted into the Hall.

Ten women will be inducted in March 2010, six contemporary and four historical.

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