Josey's life leaves much to be desired when we see her waiting by the Christmas tree with her pre-adolescent son and younger daughter, alone in the house. Her husband drives up. And we next see her lying on the floor bloody after hes beaten her. At that point, she wastes no time packing up her stuff into her pick up truck and moving herself and the kids out of there never to return. They move to her parents home in northern Minnesota. This living arrangement is not much better. At the very least, she and the kids are safe from her husband. But the minute her father observes her face, he has to ask her if the husband caught her with another man. He clearly has no respect, whatsoever for his daughter. Her mother, more nurturing (played by Sissy Spacek), encourages her daughter to reconcile with her husband and take him back, without regard for the fact that he is abusive. Neither parent has a clue or any respect for her.
Josey works temporarily washing hair in a local salon when she runs into an old acquaintance, Glory (Frances McDormand), who informs her that there are some good paying jobs available to women at the iron mines. Knowing that her father works there, Josey realizes that applying and working there will not go over well with him. But Glory informs her that she would be making as much as he makes. Realizing she doesnt have too many options, that the iron mine job pays 6 times what she makes washing hair, she has kids to feed and she cannot live with her parents forever, her choices are pretty clear. So she goes and applies.
Of course, before they can hire her, they have to do a pelvic exam in order to prove that she is not pregnant. She and the kids move in with Glory and her husband after she's applied for the job. Next, we see her and the other women at their orientation. Her supervisor makes it very clear that he does not approve of women doing the type of work that they are hired to do. And he answers the very obvious question of why, in that case, does he hire them in the first place? He clarifies to them that the Supreme Court mandates that the company hires women whether he likes it or not. And given that the guys are forced to let the women work with them, we can clearly see that they are determined to make their working environment unbearable all the while they are there. The first thing that is revealed is the reason why the company requires the pelvic exam for all women before they start. The supervisor all but spells out that it is completely unrelated to any medical protocol.
When the women start working, they get introduced to their shift leader who is clearly relishing the opportunity to abuse and sexually harass them. And Josey looks at his face and remembers he is Bobby Sharp, her old high school boyfriend. She also remembers an old teacher she had many years ago who observed the two of them together.
When the women start working, they see pictures and profanity with their names written on the walls. The guys talk filthy and intimidate them. And they discover obscene surprises in their lunch boxes and lockers.
Josey goes and talks to the supervisor about the unacceptable working conditions. But he clearly states to her that nobody wants her there and nothing is going to change. So what can anybody do?
It looks like not many people intend to quit. What other jobs pay enough to live on in a town like that in the 80s? Josey finds herself making enough to get a home loan, buy a house and provide all the stuff that her kids want and need.
There is an uphill battle for the company to provide porta-johns for the women. Glory explains to management that it takes women longer to use the bathroom than it does men since they must pull down their overalls and cannot simply whip it out within seconds. And as soon as there is a porta-john for women, a worker named Sherry goes to use it. They guys stand around and inform her that they have taken a big dump in it before she enters. When she goes in, they surround it and tip it back and forth. And they knock it over with her in it. The filth spills all over and she is hurt and very traumatized. But what can she do about it?
At that point, Josey is determined to do whatever it takes, including taking a day off work to drive into the city for a formal meeting with the owner, Mr. Pearson. He tells her he will "help" her by arranging for her immediate resignation. But she protests that she does not intend to quit. Hearing that, Pearson concludes in that case, she needs to spend less time stirring up her female co-workers, less time in the beds of her married male co-workers, and more time developing her job performance. These are the accusations that not only the company charges her with. But all over town, rumors go around that shame and disgrace her in front of her kids, parents, friends and co-workers. Her son tells her she is a whore and disrespects her. He is only responding to what he hears about his mother.
One day, things get way out of hand at work. The women are all called to clean up a big filthy mess which looks like defecation on the wall. And Bobby calls Josey to do a job for him. She goes with him to a private place and he attacks her. At that point, she announces that she quits. She goes and finds a lawyer she's met through her friends (Woody Harrelson). She tells him she wants to file sexual harassment charges against the company. He tells her that he does not want to get involved in it. Although he is not disputing anything she says, he warns her that she will be ripped apart in the courtroom and they are not likely to win. But he later reconsiders and asks if she can get the other women to corroborate her story so they can file a class action suit. At first nobody wants to help her. Glory, who at that point, is in the hospital, dying from Lou Gehrig's disease and not able to work anywhere anymore, is not about to help her and she demands Josey leave her alone. Josey, then asks Sherry who asks Josey what if they lose? She will have to go back there and face those sons-of-bitches. She knows they can get away with doing whatever they want. The others conclude the same thing, realizing its easy for Josey to make noise since she no longer has to work there. But one night, Josey enters a town meeting with her lawyer. All the guys are sounding off about the false charge shes made against Bobby. The women are also at the meeting and none are arguing. But Josey demands they let her talk. And lo and behold, her father comes to her defense after hearing the way these people are trashing his daughter. And he gets up and announces although he's worked with them for his entire life, he is disgraced by them and very proud of his daughter.
Josey and her lawyer start the court hearing even though they are presently alone. Her former co-workers are all present in the courtroom after having been asked to sign affidavits that she is lying. Pearson has hired a woman lawyer who does not hesitate to rip Josey apart, asking her about her sexual history and the fact that nobody else believes what she is alleging happens at the mine. Yet the lawyer has privately warned Pearson that he may not win his case. All it takes is 3 plaintiffs to bring charges against him and new sexual harassment laws will be in effect all over the nation. Throughout most of the trial, nobody speaks up except Josey. The lawyer has even subpoenaed her old teacher with whom she has been accused of having a sexual relationship when she was 16. She realizes the only witness of her involvement with the teacher is Bobby Sharp, since he was her previous classmate, present right before the teacher raped her. Bobby obviously knew what happened yet did nothing. And to this day, he affirms that she was not raped. She chose to have sex with the teacher. But others know better. Josey's father suddenly stands up and goes to physically attack the teacher for raping his daughter. And he gets removed from the courtroom for his outburst. Josey's lawyer finally coerces Bobby into admitting that he had witnessed Josey's rape and had run away as he was too afraid to stand up for her. Josey's lawyer then makes a speech that a courageous person stands up for what is right, even if they are alone, like Josey. At that point, Glory suddenly motions, from her wheelchair, in the back row of the court-room, that she backs Josey. Josey's lawyer reminds the judge that they only need three plaintiffs to file the class action. And they now have two. At that point, Sherry stands up. Then the woman beside her stands. Then we see many people all over the courtroom standing including both men and women at the mines and Josey's parents. Next, we see her life back on track. Her teenage son plays hockey with her lawyer and he wants his rich mom to buy him a car. She reminds him that he is still too young to drive. But when she is driving him home, she decides she will teach him to drive. It looks like she is finally living a life of quality and being respected.