Janet Bonnema worked as an engineering technician for Colorado’s Straight Creek Tunnel (now renamed the Eisenhower Tunnel) in the 1970s, but supervisors barred her from working in the tunnel bore because she was female. Her successful fight in court for her right to work inside the tunnel helped break down the centuries-old discriminatory myth that women in tunnels and mines would bring bad luck. Despite being shunned by fellow workers and labeled a trouble-maker, her tenacity and sense of justice opened up vast new job opportunities for women in highway construction, mining, and other previously all-male professions in Colorado and the nation.
Bonnema grew up in South Denver. She had a keen interest in math and science, but guidance counselors at the time steered female students away from these “male” subjects. She earned a history degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. As an avid skier, motorcyclist, rock climber, parachutist, pilot, and world traveler, throughout her life Bonnema pursued her passions despite gender stereotypes.
In 1970, Bonnema landed a post with the Colorado Department of Highways (CDOH) as a technician for the ambitious tunnel project along Interstate 70 under Loveland Pass. Bonnema refused to take no for an answer and filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit in 1972 against CDOH under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The case was soon settled in Bonnema’s favor, but 66 miners temporarily walked off the job when she attempted to enter the tunnel. Eventually supervisors gave the order to allow her inside to do her job recording measurements, collecting rock samples, and producing technical drawings.
After the Eisenhower Tunnel’s completion in 1973, Bonnema earned her master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver and traveled the world to work on projects. Soon after retiring from her water engineering job in Florida, she died in 2008, following a long fight with cancer.